San Jose leaders push back against bill to change VTA governance
A woman boards a VTA bus near Diridon Station in downtown San Jose. File photo.

    San Jose councilmembers are pushing against a new state bill that would keep them off the county’s transit board. 

    AB 1091, introduced by Assemblymember Marc Berman,  would prohibit elected officials from serving on the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) board. Instead, cities can appoint expert residents to represent their communities. San Jose would also see its representation on the board shrink.

    Berman said changing VTA’s board structure will improve its governance. Even before the pandemic, VTA grappled with drops in ridership and a budget deficit.

    “Three Civil Grand Jury Reports over the last seventeen years have identified the governance structure of VTA as a root cause of the agency’s poor performance,” Berman told San José Spotlight. “Transit riders, taxpayers and VTA staff deserve a board of directors that have the interest and ability to dedicate the time necessary to provide appropriate oversight and meet our region’s complex transportation needs.”

    But city officials say cutting the number of San Jose board members is an issue of equity, especially since San Jose is the majority of ridership on VTA’s transit arm.

    According to Ramses Madou with the San Jose department of transportation, almost 70% of riders in the county who board busses and light rails begin their journey in San Jose. Typically, these riders are disabled or cannot afford to travel by car, he said.

    If the bill passes, each city would only get two board seats — non-elected officials appointed by the mayor — leaving San Jose with three fewer voting representatives than it has now.

    “We see this (bill) as taking away the voice, the perspective and the representation of the most disadvantaged folks in the county and the folks who are actually using the transit system,” Madou said.

    Under the proposed bill, each of the five county Board of Supervisors members would appoint a member. Supervisors could appoint more representatives from San Jose, but this is not guaranteed.

    The Rules and Open Government Committee discussed flaws with Assembly Bill 1091 on March 17.

    On Wednesday, a council committee that sets agendas for the City Council voted unanimously to ask the San Jose City Council to oppose the bill. The committee includes Vice Mayor Chappie Jones, Councilmembers Raul Peralez, Sylvia Arenas, David Cohen and Dev Davis.

    The full council take up the issue on March 23.

    Changing VTA’s governing board 

    After years of being bashed by the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury for its governance, VTA hired an outside consultant to suggest ways to improve its 18-member board. The board contains 12 voting members and six alternates. Five of the 12 current voting members represent San Jose.

    In December, the consultant made recommendations — which include adopting four-year board terms and eliminating alternate members — to the VTA’s Ad Hoc Board Enhancement Committee.

    The committee debated the consultant’s suggestions Jan. 17. County supervisor Cindy Chavez said strong discussion about the board’s makeup arises every year because San Jose has “too much power,” which leaves smaller cities feeling left out of decision making.

    Kicking out elected officials 

    Madou said barring elected officials from board positions may not be the right approach to fixing the problems. Elected officials can better connect transit issues with local policies than a resident not entrenched in the lawmaking process, he said. Madou added that residents have opportunities to voice their opinions through various VTA advisory committees.

    Local transit advocate Monica Mallon said the agency should be more responsive to the community and riders, but she’s not sure a fully elected-official board or fully citizen board is the answer.

    “I would be interested in the exploration of a mixed board with both elected officials and citizens,” Mallon said. “I think there is value in having elected officials on the board because of their direct connection to city and county government.”

    Peralez strongly opposes the bill, adding Berman did not collaborate with San Jose.

    “I think we need to send a strong message of opposition,” Peralez said. “This is not at all something that I think this city should be considering.”

    Peralez said further conversation is needed to improve VTA governance. For example, Peralez said the city could talk with VTA about electing board members in the same way BART does.

    Cohen, on the other hand, is still deciding.

    “I’m a little bit unsure yet on opposing the bill because I’m not convinced that the current method of running the VTA board is working,” he said, noting that elected officials have to juggle other responsibilities. He said perhaps San Jose could propose ways to amend the bill.

    Berman remains hopeful that the bill will create a more effective VTA board by July 2022.

    “I would hope that this would be something that everyone — even current VTA board members that might have to give up a little personal political power in exchange for better governance — could agree with,” Berman said. “I look forward to engaging with the city of San Jose and Mayor (Sam) Liccardo on AB 1091 as we work towards our shared goal of improving public transportation in Santa Clara.”

    Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] or follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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