When the nine directors of Bay Area Rapid Transit met privately last week, all but two had decided to name Buffalo's Alfred H. Savage to head their growing transit system.
But one obstacle stood in the way. Savage, executive director of the NFTA, wanted a pay increase and a fringe-benefits package similar to the one he has in Buffalo. That was considered extravagant by California lawmakers.
The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority gives Savage a $120,000 salary, an expense account, a car and access to a chauffeur during working hours, and a five-year annuity at $30,000 a year.
Savage also received compensation for his move to Buffalo in 1987 and for the cost of selling his home in Toronto.
Convinced that Savage's demands would be perceived as excessive, four of the seven supporters of Savage switched their votes to Frank Wilson, former operations manager of the Philadelphia area's Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
The final result came Tuesday when the San Francisco-based agency voted 5-4 to hire Wilson, ending the latest but probably not the last recruiting effort of one of the Buffalo area's highest-paid public officials.
"Any effort to hire Savage after the compensation issue was raised became very difficult," said Arlo Smith, president of BART. "The problem was basically the price of his package."
Wilson always was the first choice of at least five board members, Smith said, but because the board wanted a unanimous decision, it decided that Savage was the most likely compromise candidate.
At one time, seven of the nine directors had backed Savage, with the other two directors supporting Wilson or Theodore Weigel, executive director of Chicago's Regional Transportation Authority.
That changed when state legislators complained about the size of Savage's proposed salary and benefits package, comparing it to the $90,000 salary for the governor of California.
"There was more of a consensus for Savage," Smith said, "but there was also a serious political problem."
Savage's salary and benefits package was deemed necessary to bring him to Buffalo in early 1987 from the Toronto Transit Commission, where he was chief general manager. By contrast, Wilson will receive $110,000 a year, an unspecified housing allowance and only a few of the perks that Savage wanted.
His predecessor in San Francisco, Keith Bernard, made just less than $100,000 a year.
"I told them I wasn't really interested unless it was a startling offer," Savage said Wednesday. "Their consultant put together a package that he thought would be attractive to me, and they felt it was too much."
Would Savage have left Buffalo if the offer was right? And will he continue to entertain offers from other cities?
"It's human nature; you have to leave the door open," Savage said. "But unless it's very beneficial, I'm not really interested in leaving."
With several cities looking for experienced transit executives, Savage is bound to get his share of offers.
Without ruling out anything, Savage said he has grown tired of dealing with the numerous inquiries and the publicity that goes with them.
"I'm not sure I'll even look at them in the future," he said. "It's such a hassle. At the present time, I don't think I would consider them."