Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why a directly elected VTA Board won't fix VTA?

As the VTA Board is considering possible changes to its board composition, some have suggested that members of the VTA Board should be directly elected, rather than appointed from various city councils and the Board of Supervisors as it is currently done. Advocates for an elected VTA Board pointed out that boardmembers of both BART and AC Transit are chosen by voters.

Nominally, direct election gives voters an ultimate degree of accountability over a governing board. Today, there's no direct way to vote someone off the VTA Board for making poor decisions on VTA issues. Members can either be voted out or termed out of their original elected office on the city council or the Board of Supervisors, or, for non-San Jose cities, just being rotated out of the VTA Board after a two year cycle. By the same token, there's no direct way to get on the VTA Board short of becoming the Mayor of San Jose. No one can get on the VTA Board simply with their transportation expertise.

Meanwhile, do voters care about VTA issues? Given the fact that very few commuters in the South Bay ride transit, most voters simply aren't going to study the candidates and their positions. Do most voters study the candidates for Santa Clara Valley Water District, El Camino Hospital District, or San Jose-Evergreen Community College District?

Lack of voter interest sometimes defeat the purpose of having direct elections. In 1998, Nancy Jewell Cross was voted to serve on the AC Transit Board representing Newark and Fremont. She defeated her incumbent opponent primarily because of her deceptive yet persuasive ballot arguments. Prior to her run, she had a reputation on the other side of the Bay for suing everyone she was angry at and was therefore declared a vexatious litigant.

Once Cross was elected, her true character showed. She was disruptive and uncooperative with her fellow boardmembers. She was finally voted off the AC Transit Board four years later.

Although Nancy Jewell Cross is an extreme example, at many smaller special districts, many boardmembers simply won uncontested for the same reason.

For VTA, which has an annual operating budget of about $350 million, every seat will likely be contested. Running for contested positions on the county-wide board often require the candidates to be beholden to special interests as they seek endorsements as well as campaign contributions. Will the candidates truly serve transit riders, or will they just serve the labor unions and downtown delusionals like it is now?

Imagine a scenario where Carl Guardino and Ron Gonzales got elected to the VTA Board. They can't get onboard VTA now, but they could if VTA were directly elected. We know that their priorities are not aligned with transit riders, but will the voters care?


JMD said...

Great job in pointing out the downfalls of a directly elected transit board. How many people going to the booth will really care about who they vote for?
When is the last time the average voter studied who was running for school board? Or the record of the judges they are approving?
Or the record of their state representatives?
The fact is, most people only pay attention to the big races and that is not saying they are well informed about them. Having directly elected transit boards is a disaster waiting to happen.

295bus said...

This is a good summary of the problem.

But is there a *good* way to manage a transit district? Can we find examples of really well managed transit systems?

CalTrain seems fairly well run despite what's a pretty crappy organizational structure (basically, the Muni, SamTrans, and VTA chip in money and send representatives to run it).

Maybe the secret is that since the work of running boring old conventional trains is kind of un-glamorous, and CalTrain being the unloved stepchild of Bay Area transit, always last on the list for MTA's funding priorities, only someone genuinely interested in making the railway work would want the thankless task of helping run it.