Political power struggle is the ‘elephant in the room’ at VTA board meeting
VTA Board of Directors Chair Cindy Chavez led a study session on Jan 24 to discuss ways to improve board governance. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

The VTA’s Board of Directors had a study session Friday to consider more than two dozen recommendations from an outside consultant to improve how the authority is governed, and newly-elected board chair Cindy Chavez closed the meeting by addressing the “elephant in the room.”

The recommendations — which include setting expectations for board member attendance, eliminating the use of alternate members and adopting a longer board term — were presented by consultant RSM to the VTA’s Ad Hoc Board Enhancement Committee in December. The committee debated those suggestions at a meeting Jan. 17 after a lengthy public comment session. Having heard recordings of those meetings — and based on her personal conversations with fellow board members — Chavez said she senses a rivalry among the cities who are represented on the Authority’s Board of Directors.

Currently, the 18 directors — 12 voting members and 6 alternates — are elected officials appointed by their jurisdictions, with 15 city councilmembers and three members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. San Jose has six representatives on the board, including Mayor Sam Liccardo and four other voting members.

“There is a belief that the city of San Jose has way too much power on this board and the smaller cities therefore are left out, or not included in the decision making and that is why every two years or so there is a strong discussion from some corner of the community about how we change the structure of the board,” Chavez said Friday.

The board chair encouraged the other directors to engage with that issue head-on at VTA board meetings, and not to shy away from the subject in their other interactions.

“I think there are some real discussions to be had about how we balance power and I want us to, in a very intellectually honest way, have a conversation about how the changes we are making create more opportunity for that,” Chavez said.

John McAlister, chair of the ad hoc board enhancement committee, told San José Spotlight he would prefer VTA board members be “full-time” or “dedicated” so they don’t have to “wear so many hats,” whether they continue to be appointed by local officials or elected by voters. But the latter would require a change in the state law that gives the board its authority, which requires that the VTA board be appointed by the Board of Supervisors, the San Jose City Council and the “city councils of all other cities, as provided by agreement among those cities.”

“In poker, you play the cards you’re dealt,” said McAlister, a member of the Mountain View City Council. “And this is the hand we have. So since we don’t have control over how members are appointed, we figured let’s look at the selection process so we can ensure that the people who are on the board are engaged and informed. And we should create a system that will provide them with the information they need to make informed decisions.”

To that end, McAlister said the committee endorsed the consultant’s recommendations that the VTA board should “revise member agency appointment guidelines and adopt a nominating process,” and “set member attendance expectations.”

The decision to seek input from an outside consultant to help the authority resolve its governance problems was preceded by a grand jury report last summer, which admonished the VTA’s board members, saying “most if not all” view the job as “secondary” to their commitments as elected officials.

The report also called out some board members who treat their appointment as a “resumé builder” and a “one-day-a-month job.” The 2019 Santa Clara County Superior Court Civil Grand Jury report was the third time in less than 20 years a grand jury has slammed the VTA board structure as being ineffective, including 2009 and 2004.

Meanwhile, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress told San José Spotlight in December that the board will continue to discuss RSM’s recommendations at a series of committee meetings this year, and eventually the full board “may reject, approve or revise,” any of them.

Transit activist Monica Mallon, who encouraged the board to take the consultant’s recommendations seriously, told San José Spotlight she thought the directors would be reluctant to make real changes to the board’s governance.

“A lot of people aren’t going to want to change anything at all,” Mallon predicted, especially nothing that “would affect the politics of the board.”

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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