Wednesday, September 28th, 2011 at 8:00 pm in BART.
Linton Johnson, the all-purpose public voice of BART, remains on leave more than a month since his public relations war with protesters put him even more under the spotlight. BART officials said Wednesday they don’t know when he will return. Johnson’s response to email messages says that he is on a two-month leave for family reasons and he will return around Oct. 17.
His previous email message had him returning Sept. 19, but that was amended with the later return time.
Johnson, the chief media spokesman for an agency often in the news, made news in the last month during the continuing tensions between BART and protesters and hackers upset with shootings by BART police officers.
The highlights include
– public records released by BART disclosed that Johnson planned for BART to provide scripts and offer free van rides to loyal riders to appear at a BART-organized news conference to criticize protesters’ disruptions of train service. BART paid $870 in public funds to hire two SUV’s that ended up not being needed because the only rider to come to the conference provided his own transportation. BART board members vowed the action would never happen again.
– Johnson disclosed that he was the one who suggested the idea to cut off cell phone service in four underground stations to thwart BART critics from organizing a protest. The blackout stirred international debate over government powers to limit speech.
– Someone associated with the hacker group Anonymous on Aug. 26 posted revealing photos of Johnson at a social event. The posting was apparently in retaliation for Johnson’s suggesting and defending the cell phone blackout – as well as his calling hackers cyber thugs for posting home addresss of BART police officers on the Internet.
All in all, it’s been a rocky time for the media spokesman. Some inside the BART system praise Johnson as a skilled, hard working communicator who must talk for the agency in some difficult circumstances. Others see him as drawing too much attention to himself and enforcing an internal BART culture to spin news and limit information.
BART Director Lynette Sweet of San Francisco said she hopes Johnson will return soon, although she wasn’t happy with his plan to provide scripts and free transportation for riders to attend a press conference.
As BART’s chief spokesman, Johnson has “taken the brunt” of public criticism for several unpopular actions by others at the agency, Sweet said.
She added that she hopes BART will spread the work load around for answering media calls at night and weekends, and possibly designate key managers to answer some media questions involving their areas of responsibility.
“It’s too much for one person to do,” Sweet said. “It can lead to burnout.”