Richard T. Swist apparently lost the "fire in the belly" to run the NFTA during the past year, a lack of enthusiasm that didn't go over well with the man slated to become chairman of the agency in January.
"Frankly, over the last few months I've noticed his energy level coming down," NFTA Commissioner Luiz F. Kahl said Tuesday. "I was putting pressure on him.
"It came to a point where he decided to come to (NFTA Chairman) Robert (Gioia) last Monday and said he didn't want to do it."
Swist, 48, in announcing his resignation, said he was departing voluntarily after becoming increasingly restless. He also said Kahl had asked him to remain. Swist could not be reached to comment.
But Kahl, the former chief executive of the Carborundum Co., said he told Swist six months ago, when it became apparent he would likely succeed Gioia as chairman, that he wanted to take the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to a "higher point."
"I told him I have a different style, more hands-on," said Kahl, adding that he asked Swist, "I want to know if you have the fire in the belly to do it?"
Kahl said that at first Swist replied he did, but that in the ensuing months he noticed a decline in the executive director's interest.
Kahl also noted that Swist, who came to the NFTA in 1990 after two other top-level stints in public service, has about 21 months left before he qualifies for a 20-year pension at Tier I, the highest level available to government appointees.
If Swist can find another public position to complete those 21 months, which he would like to do, that would make him eligible to retire at 55 with an annual pension approximately 40 percent of the average of his three top salary years. His current salary is $110,000.
Swist also will receive half of his annual pay as severance when he leaves the NFTA next month and receive cash compensation for his accrued vacation time, about 21 weeks, according to agency records.
Kahl described the outgoing NFTA executive as "smart when he wants to do things. I think highly of him."
He is recommending the NFTA do a national search to find Swist's successor. Kahl said Lawrence M. Meckler, 45, the top lawyer at the agency who will serve as interim executive, will be considered for the job, calling him very capable.
"The sooner we can fill that job the better," he said. "The authority is doing better these days. Robert (Gioia) got it to a much higher level of professionalism."
As for other senior management positions, Kahl noted that searches have been under way in recent months for permanent executives for the Metro and airport divisions. The authority recently reorganized its operations to create separate business units.
Karen Rae currently is acting director of surface transportation (Metro), and David Gregory is acting director at the airports.
Former NFTA Commissioner Ronald J. Anthony said Swist had received some criticism within the agency for the speed in which Ms. Rae had been promoted through the ranks of Metro.
"I felt Karen Rae came in from a small town in New York and the next thing you know she's in charge of a large operation," Anthony said. "I felt there were very qualified people that were jumped over."
Swist said Ms. Rae has been instrumental in reshaping Metro for the future. She has been responsible for planning the Hublink concept, a proposal now being pitched to area leaders that would make Metro a truly metropolitan-wide transportation provider.
"I think her talent speaks for itself," Swist said.
While Kahl indicated a wait-and-see attitude about the futures of Ms. Rae and Gregory, he was enthusiastic in his praise for Dean Sallak, the authority's chief financial officer and a close friend of Swist, saying he wants Sallak to remain.
Anthony, who was a regular gadfly during his years on the board before losing his appointment earlier this year, said Swist's departure and Kahl's ascendancy signals that "business is taking over" the NFTA.
Besides his experience at Carborundum, Kahl is a member of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership executive board.
Kahl has indicated he intends to run the NFTA in an even more businesslike manner should he become chairman, and focus attention on issues such as improving air service, a top priority for the area business community.