Monday, June 01, 2009

Grand Jury finds VTA deceived voters...again

Earlier today, the Santa Clara County Grand Jury released its findings on VTA. What the Grand Jury discovered are pretty much what we've experienced over the years: that the VTA board was out of touch, VTA staff deceived voters, and VTA committees were ignored.

VTA board was out of touch

Overwhelming Information. The voluminous board packets provided by VTA staff are frequently several hundred pages and contain information that require many hours of review by the board members before the meeting. Most board members work full time, which leaves them very little time to review the material in the packet. Some members stay up late at night to review the packet the night before the meeting. An exception is the City of San Jose, and Board of Supervisors, who have full-time, paid staff to review and distill the information. The other cities have part-time city council members with no support staff to help with VTA activities.

Staff Driven. All of the above issues contribute to the fact that VTA remains an organization that is frequently referred to as “staff driven.” Meeting agendas are prepared by VTA staff with input from the Board chairperson. In some cases, the chairperson follows a “script” prepared by VTA staff. Interviews with VTA board and committee members revealed that independent thinking was discouraged. Board members appear unwilling or unable to bring up items for discussion that are not prescreened by the staff. Hence, the VTA Board has frequently been referred to as a “rubber stamp” for policy proposals formulated by the VTA staff.

Both the Hay Report and the State Auditor Report recommended that the VTA Board make every effort to insure that new board members have transportation experience by appointing new members with previous transportation experience and reappointing members for multiple terms. Nevertheless the Mayor of San Jose recently appointed two new board members to represent San Jose who have no previous transportation experience.

VTA staff deceived voters

In June, 2006 the Board approved a comprehensive 30-year Revenue and Expenditure Plan for all projects identified in 2000 Measure A. During 2008, an update to this plan was scheduled. Sometime between June 19, 2008 and August 7, 2008, this update was cancelled and a decision was made to place an additional tax on the November, 2008 ballot.

(At the August 2008 meeting) Mr. Burns advised that the Light-Rail Extension to Eastridge “has not been stopped but that there is not enough money to complete all of the Measure A projects. . .” The Board “reaffirmed” its support for the project and recommended continuation of planning and design activities. However, property acquisition, utility relocation construction and completion of bid documents for construction contracts were not authorized.

(At the same meeting) The staff presented a report to the Board supporting the sufficiency of the 1/8 cent tax proposal to cover the projected deficit in BART operating costs. The conclusion was based on a new 30-year sales tax revenue estimate. This report also provided sufficient information to update the revenue estimate in the new Revenue and Expenditure Plan.

The September, 2008, scheduled presentation of the update to the Revenue and Expenditure Plan was not delivered and never rescheduled... As a consequence, the public was not informed of the 2000 Measure A 30-year financial situation before the November 2008 election.

(In the draft June 2009 capital budget) A notable exception in the preliminary documentation is the absence of any funding for the light rail to Eastridge program which appears to have become totally dependent on unidentified federal funding.

Essentially VTA forwent short term job creation by shelving the light rail project, which was shovel-ready and has received community support.

If the 30-year Revenue and Expenditure Plan had been updated as planned, it likely would have shown that if the BART extension were built as planned, the remaining 2000 Measure A projects would require massive additional investment... 

...If the updated Revenue and Expenditure Plan had been readily available to the public, Measure B might not have passed. The VTA had sufficient time and information to complete this update and made a deliberate decision not to publish it prior to the election.

Of particular concern is that VTA intends to start collection of the Measure B tax while only completing a shortened version of the BART extension to Berryessa...

The ballot wording specifically refers to funding for the entire 16.1 mile BART extension.

VTA committees were ignored

Token committees. Both the Hay Report and the State Auditor Report took the VTA to task for poor use of its Advisory Committees... One of the key criticisms is that the Advisory Committees are presented with items to review only after the Board and/or staff has already made a decision... VTA’s attitude toward these committees has ranged from ignoring their existence entirely to retaliation for independent thinking.

Watchdog committee or lapdog committee?

The members of the CAC/CWC (2000 Measure A Watchdog committee) interviewed all stated they work for the VTA Board. This is a reasonable position for a CAC member, but not when acting in the capacity of a CWC member. The very nature of an “independent watchdog committee” is to “oversee” actions of the board for the citizens of Santa Clara County.

CAC/CWC members are approved by the VTA Board, compromising independence of thought and action.

Some CAC/CWC members are former VTA Board members, former Policy Advisory Committee members and/or former elected officials in the county. One interviewee referred to the committee as the “Board Retirement Plan Committee.”

(In 2007) The VTA Board has approved the exchange (swap) of approximately $107M of Measure A funds for use on non-Measure A programs in exchange for a payback from anticipated State Transportation Improvement (STIP) funds at a future time (basically swap funding programmed for the airport peoplemover project with highways)...

..As of June, 2008, approximately $9M of Measure A sales tax revenue had been spent on non-Measure A programs. At the same time, the 2000 Measure A program was over $361M in debt... There was no prior discussion or notification to the Citizen Watchdog Committee. The CWC was informed after the fact in a report from VTA staff.

At its February 11, 2009 meeting, a discussion regarding the CWC’s responsibilities in this area was initiated by a CWC member and stifled by VTA staff in attendance by reminding the CWC members of the limitations in their responsibilities... following this meeting two members of the CWC resigned, leaving a total of five vacancies.

In many ways, VTA is like a communist state, where there cannot be an honest dialogue about major policies. Like a communist state, the legislative bodies are basically a rubber stamp for the supposedly all powerful, all knowing (and all self-serving) bureaucracy. Like a communist state, open discussions and dissents are not tolerated (like you can't still talk about the 1989 Tiananmen massacre in China today). Since Michael Burns believes in deceiving the riders, taxpayers, as well as those he who should formally seek advice from, one has to wonder who is his real boss.


Anonymous said...

Well, this is all well and good, but will it have any practical effect or will this report go directly to the round file along with the previous GJ report?

accountablevta said...

Who knows, but don't have high expectations.

295bus said...

Cynically speaking: Grand Juries are allowed to be honest about the problems they find precisely because they don't have any power to do anything about them.

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