Silicon Valley transit officials are standing firm against a legislative proposal that would dramatically change VTA’s governing body.
The VTA board of directors voted unanimously Thursday to oppose Assembly Bill 2181, introduced in February by Assemblymember Marc Berman. The bill would eliminate the current 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 as opposed to elected officials. The proposal also calls for the inclusion of members with expertise in construction or finance and would eliminate alternate directors.
The board’s vote follows Berman’s bill sailing through the Assembly on a 69-2 vote, with dissenting votes from Silicon Valley Assemblymembers Ash Kalra and Mark Stone. The bill is now headed to the state Senate’s transportation committee, and VTA board members hope their opposition will sway lawmakers in Sacramento to kill the bill.
“We’re close to the end of the legislative session, and I think we have to make our voices very clear that we’re opposed because there’s really no way to fix this bill,” VTA board member and county Supervisor Cindy Chavez said during the meeting.
AB 2181 is Berman’s latest attempt at transforming VTA’s governing body. Last year, he tried and failed to pass a bill that would have limited the board’s size and cut out elected members.
No changes to VTA
Berman held a town hall in March where he expressed concerns about the current governing system, which he blames for problems like high operating costs, deteriorating service and poor fare recovery. He also cited findings from a 2019 civil grand jury report that identified inexperienced board members and lack of continuity in VTA leadership as systemic problems.
Berman told San José Spotlight he respects the VTA board’s decision and will continue to seek opportunities for compromise as the bill moves forward. He said he has incorporated feedback in the legislation, but noted reform is challenging.
“VTA staff, who many have complained hold too much power over the board already, have led efforts behind the scenes to create confusion and sow opposition,” Berman said. “And none of the elected officials on the board want to give up their power to members of the public. Even if they will acknowledge privately that the current system is not working.”
VTA board member and Sunnyvale Councilmember Glen Hendricks submitted a letter to Berman last month raising concerns about his bill, noting it reduces the role of elected officials with policymaking experience and eliminates the current rotation system for giving smaller cities equal representation on the board. Elected officials from Mountain View, Palo Alto and Cupertino have also filed letters opposing the legislation.
Hendricks seemed bewildered by the intent of Berman’s bill, which he argues doesn’t clearly identify any existing governance issues.
“One of the problems I keep struggling with is, what is the problem we’re trying to solve?” Hendricks said, adding Berman’s bill suggests members of the board aren’t doing a good job. “If that’s true, rather than hearing generic comments, I’d like to hear specific names… who (is) not doing a good job on this board?”
Morgan Hill Mayor and VTA vice chair Rich Constantine said Berman’s bill doesn’t guarantee South County’s representation at VTA. He told San José Spotlight VTA members requested to speak with Berman about their concerns in advance of the Assembly vote and he never responded.
“No bill is perfect—I’m always saying one key doesn’t open all doors,” Constantine said. “But when there are concerns that aren’t addressed—that’s not how we should do things. But that’s how Sacramento always seems to work.”
San Jose transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon said governance reform at VTA is a distraction from more critical problems. She said board members who thought they could work with Berman didn’t raise serious opposition to the bill. Now, however, she expects that will change.
“By the time it goes to committee later this month, there’s going to be opposition from VTA and probably from the majority of cities in the county,” Mallon said.
State Sen. Dave Cortese, a former VTA board member, told San José Spotlight the agency needs reform—but Berman’s bill doesn’t get to the heart of the issue, which is lack of funding, low ridership and a lack of cohesion across transit systems in the Bay Area.
“The answer is not to reduce direct accountability from voters and disenfranchise residents even further,” Cortese said.