Ackemann: Good intentions gone wrong?
VTA board members met during a special meeting Jan. 22 to discuss the recruitment process for a new CEO and general manager.

VTA is considering another round of consultant-led recommendations to overhaul its Board and Committee processes on Thursday. This time, changes include a controversial recommendation to overhaul the public comment process in a way VTA hopes will streamline meetings and lead to greater efficiency.

But members of the public who frequently attend these meetings to offer their feedback, say this may limit public participation.

What led to these recommendations is less clear.

In a 2019 report described as “scathing,” the Grand Jury called VTA the “most expensive and least efficient transit system in the country.” When asked if this report was the reason VTA reviewed its processes, VTA spokesperson Ken Blackstone first said that the review had been initiated prior to the Grand Jury report.

But the VTA response issued at the time of the June 2019 report indicated it would commission a governance review in response to the findings.

In a post on VTA’s website dated Sept. 17, 2019, the organization made the following commitment, “Based on one recommendation of the Grand Jury’s report, the VTA Board has directed staff to commission an independent study to evaluate how VTA’s current governance structure and practices help support VTA’s mission, goals, and objectives. The governance study will identify leading practices and potential enhancements for consideration by the Board. The study will soon get underway and will be accompanied by a community engagement process to receive feedback from the public. Stay tuned for more information.”

In acknowledging the discrepancy, VTA representatives said the two processes—responding to the Grand Jury and the agency’s priority to improve governance—merged into a single project.

Already, this doesn’t seem promising if the goal is improved transparency.

But improved transparency wasn’t among those objectives the agency hoped to achieve with its governance review. “Expected benefits are enhanced Board member engagement and knowledge, enhanced meeting efficiency, and better alignment between the Strategic Plan and operational decisions,” Blackstone added. “Enhanced meeting efficiency” is a goal VTA laid out, and one this public comment change ostensibly seeks to address. But it is not among those findings raised by the Civil Grand Jury.

The Grand Jury report issued in 2019, was the third such report in the past 20 years to recommend VTA make changes to its Board and address the organization’s financial condition. Those changes have consistently included recommendations to modify the board structure or move to a directly elected board model. Other findings suggested the board lacks relevant expertise and its knowledge deficit may cause some oversight inefficiency. Failure to regularly attend meetings was also an issue over which Board and Committee members have been called out.

And some how that leads VTA to consider restricting the amount of time available for public comment on non-agenda items. This means if too many members of the public want to make comments on a topic the board didn’t plan to address the chair can restrict the amount of time available at the start of the meeting and move the rest of the public comment period to the meeting’s conclusion—potentially forcing attendees to wait through all of the other items on the agenda before making their comment.

Monica Mallon, a Santa Clara County-based transit advocate explained, “When I first started transit advocacy, I was in college and had a job. I basically had one day each week to meet with council members or attend meetings.” Mallon’s concern is that by moving a portion of the public comment period to the end of the meeting, some participants may not be able to spend hours waiting through a lengthy agenda to comment on another subject. The net result could reduce the amount of public feedback the committee receives and seems to be fixing something that isn’t truly broken.

 

Indeed, VTA Board and Committee meetings can occasionally go many hours. But the reasons for those lengthy meetings are more complicated.

Reviewing the agency’s publicly available meeting minutes tells a different story. VTA’s minutes include the exact times each meeting begins and ends and the number of speakers on each item, including the total number of speakers who participate in the public comment period. According to the agency’s own data, its longest Board meeting over the past 12 months took place in December 2020 lasting roughly 4 hours before the Board adjourned to closed session. There were just 5 speakers during the public comment period. Conversely, its November 2020 meeting was a brief 2 and half hours but had 40 public comments. Last year, meetings averaged 3 hours and 15 minutes and had around 18 public comments per meeting. This doesn’t seem like an overwhelming burden to ask Board members to tolerate in exchange for encouraging public participation.

Achieving greater efficiency in the Board’s oversight processes will help strengthen VTA. The findings laid out by the Grand Jury report intended to improve the level of board member education on the issues and criticize board members for poor attendance. None of the grand jury findings center around streamlining the meetings themselves to change the way the public engages with the Board members.

Would the Grand Jury agree that potentially reducing the public’s equitable access to participate in Board and Committee meetings helps to achieve its goals? In time, the next Civil Grand Jury will undoubtedly let us know.

San José Spotlight columnist Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

 

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