New State ferries leader will be agency's first woman

By Jerry Cornfield
Everett Herald Writer

OLYMPIA – Two months ago, Pierce Transit Chief Executive Officer Lynne Griffith announced she was retiring.

Then Griffith heard from state Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson and others asking her to hold off and to apply to manage Washington State Ferries.

She did, and Wednesday Peterson announced the hiring of Griffith as an assistant secretary of transportation in charge of a listing ferry system. She will be the agency’s first woman leader when she begins the $144,768-a-year job next month.

“Our ferry system is an iconic symbol of the state of Washington and a vital link in our statewide transportation system,” Peterson said in a statement. “It will be in good hands with Assistant Secretary Griffith.”

Griffith inherits a ferry system reeling from recent incidents including vessel breakdowns, design deficiencies with the Tokitae and canceled sailings.

On Wednesday, Peterson delivered a 10-page memo to Inslee outlining steps she and Griffith will take to eliminate missed sailings due to lack of available crew and to reduce the number of cancelations resulting from equipment or mechanical failure.

The memo calls for building a “culture of trust, respect, accountability and collaboration” with union workers and soliciting their ideas for low-cost or no-cost ways to prevent missed sailings due to staffing issues.

It also seeks to reach agreements with the U.S. Coast Guard to enable ferries to sail without a full crew “if we close off a deck and/or limit the number of passengers, regardless of season, for as many vessels and routes as possible.”

In the memo, Peterson also talks about adding workers, training existing ones and making repairs to some of the fleet’s aging vessels.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the memo.

Griffith, a 35-year veteran of the transportation industry, said she knows her first foray into managing a marine transportation agency will be filled with challenges.

But, she said, they are similar to those faced by transit agencies she’s led — the struggle to secure adequate funding, satisfying customers, meeting targets for service and operating safely.

Because she’s not a regular ferry rider, she intends to “get out on ferries pretty intensely” once she begins work.

“I’ve invited union leadership to take me out, introduce me and show me what (workers) do,” she said. “I want to see and understand every inch of the vessels.”

Griffith, 64, lives in Tacoma and has served as chief executive officer of Pierce Transit since April 2006. She announced in July she would retire at the end of the year but changed course after Peterson and a representative of a professional search firm approached her.

She said she was “flattered” and “excited at the prospects” of the job.

Griffith’s hiring drew praise from a Gig Harbor lawmaker who has been sharply critical of ferry management.

“It’s an outstanding selection,” said Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor. “She is an experienced, tough and creative leader. She certainly starts with my full support.”

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, a co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he’s met Griffith when she’s testified to the panel.

“It’s nice we have a director for the ferry system,” King said. “I look forward to working with her as we try to move the ferry system forward.”

Seaquist did express concern with Peterson’s apparent plan to keep Capt. George Capacci, the interim ferries chief, in the No. 2 role of the agency. Seaquist said the acting chief and several other top administrators “have to go” if Griffith is to be able to get Washington State Ferries moving in the right direction for the long haul.

“This is a big project to transform the culture and the operation of the organization,” he said. “This is not a quick turnaround.”

Griffith met Capacci Wednesday and described him as delightful. When she arrives, she said, “I will look at him as being my right arm.”

As far as the long term, she said, it’s too soon to speculate on personnel changes.

Wednesday’s hiring culminates two rounds of search to find a successor to David Moseley, who stepped down in April.

The first effort ended in June when Capacci, one of two finalists, withdrew. That left former Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg as the remaining candidate, and Peterson elected to not hire him.

Griffith said she is now scheduled to start Oct. 6.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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