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Can't get no satisfaction: A local bus company allegedly fired an employee when he tried to disclose an unsatisfactory CHP inspection 

On an early afternoon in November 2013, a passenger bus was about 40 miles along its approximately 330-mile route from Goleta to Oakland when it ran into trouble.

That trouble was in the form of the California Highway Patrol, which stopped the driver of a Silverado Stages bus. An inspection of that bus revealed three violations, one of which put the vehicle out of commission.

All of the passengers were pulled off the bus, which was taken off the road after the CHP officer found that the left-side brake caliper was loose and actually missing a bolt. Other violations noted on the report included an inoperative rear red clearance light, and excessive oil and grease on the chassis under the engine.

Though the bus was the only one of Silverado Stages’ Goleta fleet placed out of service, it represented a large enough percentage (33 percent) to result in steeper enforcement actions. According to the CHP inspection report, the Goleta terminal was handed an unsatisfactory rating based on the vehicle being placed out of service.

Silverado Stages was allotted 120 days to get the bus up to snuff and pass a re-inspection, which it did, but not before appealing the original unsatisfactory rating, which resulted in the rating being suspended temporarily.

“On a technicality we suspended that rating,” CHP Spokesman Don Stafford told New Times.

That was in December 2013, and in January 2014, the CHP corrected its original documentation and reissued the unsatisfactory finding, he said. In April, Silverado Stages passed its subsequent inspection.

Had that been the end of the story, it likely would have been a moderately inconvenient blip on the San Luis Obispo-based bus company’s safety record and nothing more—yet the incident allegedly resulted in the company firing its senior project manager.

On April 9, 2014, Silverado Stages fired Aaron Young because, as he claims, he wanted to inform the LA Department of Transportation of the company’s poor inspection because he felt it was a legal obligation.

At the time, Silverado Stages was fresh into a contract to provide bus services for the city of LA. In a lawsuit Young filed last year, he alleges that he became aware during meetings with the LA Department of Transportation that contract bidders were required to disclose unsatisfactory terminal ratings. Young’s signature was on both the new contract with LA and the unsatisfactory CHP terminal rating.

He ran his concerns up the corporate chain to Silverado Stages Chairman of the Board Jim Galusha, who casually brushed the issue aside, according to court documents.

“Mr. Galusha advised Mr. Young not to worry about it and that the inspection was bogus,” according to a civil complaint Young filed with the SLO County Superior Court.

Young claims he checked with the company’s risk manager again in March 2014 and learned that the unsatisfactory inspection was “still valid.” Then he claims that Galusha specifically told him not to let the information slip to the LA Department of Transportation. According to Young’s civil complaint, he told Galusha and Chief Executive Officer Mike Vodarsik that “he felt morally and contractually obligated to disclose the unsatisfactory terminal rating to the LA [Department of Transportation].” Again, he claims he was told to keep his mouth shut, and two weeks later he was called to a meeting at work and fired.

The action seemed to have kept the negative CHP inspection report off the LA Department of Transportation’s radar. At least, if it ever was reported, the supervising transportation planner, Linda Evans, hadn’t heard about it. Despite Silverado Stages’ appeal of its terminal inspection rating, Evans said during a December 2014 deposition that the company should have reported the inspection because at the time it was being considered for a contract with the city.

“The burden of proof lies on them to submit it,” Evans said of terminal inspections.

At the time of her deposition, Evans said the company had provided a few on-call bus services as part of its contract, billing the department $10,757.50 in 2014, a small slice of the company’s annual $19 million revenues, according to Silverado Stages attorney Daniel McGee’s statements during the deposition.

Galusha didn’t return phone and email requests for comment, and McGee said he couldn’t say much because the case has been settled and both parties signed a confidentiality agreement. Young’s attorney, Jeffrey Stulberg, also declined to comment on the case because of the settlement and confidentiality agreement.

“I’m frankly surprised you’d be concerned about this,” McGee said, implying that there was no story to be told and characterizing the issue as a minor mechanical issue that was resolved. “It’s so vanilla.”

The LA Department of Transportation’s Evans also didn’t return a voicemail from New Times, but during her deposition she said the department would have expected Silverado Stages to disclose the inspection, and specifically would have expected Young to make the disclosure because he signed the contract.

“When we asked if you ever failed an inspection, we expect, you know, you to say yes or no and submit the documentation,” she told McGee. Earlier in her deposition, Evans testified that the company was expected to submit inspections from throughout the state for the previous three years, not just the terminal used to service LA.

Young and Silverado Stages settled about 2 1/2 months after Evans’ deposition. McGee told New Times he believed the company was still contracted with the LA Department of Transportation and noted Silverado Stages’ strong safety record, adding that the company didn’t make policy changes after the negative inspection.

“I’m not sure what they would change,” McGee said.

A review of Silverado Stages’ annual CHP inspections didn’t reveal any other unsatisfactory ratings over the past five years. The CHP did note a few minor violations, but none that reached the same level of the 2013 report on the Goleta terminal. In 2010, for example, the CHP found that Silverado Stages didn’t sufficiently maintain vehicle condition reports, and in February 2013 another inspection of the Sacramento terminal revealed a violation that stated “fire extinguisher not approved (EMPTY).”

Stafford, the CHP spokesman, explained that most inspections turn out fine for commercial bus operators, and Silverado Stages has a clean record for the most part.

“This one kind of rose to the top,” he said of the 2013 inspection that resulted in one bus placed out of service.

In April 2014, a Silverado Stages bus made national headlines when a FedEx delivery truck crossed the divide on Highway 5 north of Sacramento and collided with it, killing 10 people. Silverado Stages has been named as a co-defendant in a number of lawsuits filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court in relation to the crash. There was no resolution to the class-action lawsuit as of press time.

 

Senior Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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