Santa Clara County officials request state audit of VTA
A VTA light rail train at Baypointe Station. Photo by Robert Eliason.

A California legislator fighting to change VTA’s leadership is shifting tactics in the wake of public pushback.

Assemblymember Marc Berman announced Monday he is not advancing Assembly Bill 2181 this year, which would eliminate VTA’s board of directors on or after July 2023 and shrink the board from 18 to 12 members, at least six of whom would be private citizens instead of elected officials. Berman told San José Spotlight he’s requesting a state audit of the public transit agency’s governance structure, fiscal management and project planning.

Berman’s bill—his second piece of VTA reform legislation in two years—advanced out of the Assembly just weeks ago with a strong 69-2 passage. It’s unclear how it would have been received in the state Senate, but there’s been recent opposition on the local level, including from VTA officials. Earlier this month, the transit agency’s board voted unanimously to oppose Berman’s legislation.

The state lawmaker said he pivoted to an audit after dozens of conversations with public officials and transit advocates who want VTA to change, but don’t agree on how to accomplish this goal. He said the audit will provide guidance for local stakeholders on how to improve the agency.

“They need to have these conversations and they need to come up with a proposal themselves to really address the substantive issues around stability, around transparency, around making sure there’s relevant expertise on the board and around trying to create a structure that incentivizes a more regional approach,” Berman said.

Berman has repeatedly raised concerns about VTA’s governance structure, which he claims has been unable to resolve high operating costs, poor service and low fare recovery. Berman has also cited a 2019 civil grand jury report that identified problems with the board structure, including lack of expertise and continuity in VTA’s leadership.

San Jose Vice Mayor and VTA Chair Chappie Jones expressed support for Berman’s audit request in a joint statement on Monday. Jones, who did not respond to a request for comment, said this is an opportunity for VTA to get data to “propose timely reforms rooted in thorough analysis and evaluation of best practices.”

Monica Mallon, a transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist, has been a staunch opponent of Berman’s reform efforts, and she doesn’t see the purpose of an audit.

“The impact is really just wasting time or energy that could have been better spent saving transit or improving it,” Mallon told San José Spotlight. “It takes a lot of time from staff and elected officials to deal with this.”

Elected officials in several cities filed letters opposing Berman’s legislation, including Mountain View, Palo Alto and Cupertino.

Mallon argued an audit is unnecessary because VTA officials haven’t done anything illegal. Others support Berman’s proposals because they’d like to see change in VTA’s leadership structure.

Eugene Bradley, founder of Silicon Valley Transit Users, said he’s concerned about VTA board members, whose priorities as local elected officials sometimes conflict with the agency’s transit goals.

“How do the two (positions) reconcile?” Bradley said. “That’s what I’d be interested in seeing.”

Former state Sen. Jim Beall, who previously served on the VTA board, said Santa Clara County has historically been poorly represented in regional transit bodies like the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. He said Berman’s bill would put non-elected officials on VTA’s board, which may have raised concerns about whether the agency would be able to effectively lobby for resources.

“If we have good representation in the county, on a long-term basis, VTA has a better chance of responding to the community and getting the community involved,” Beall told San José Spotlight.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter.

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