VTA ponders shifting public comment, advocates cry foul
A VTA Blue Line train travels through downtown San Jose. File photo.

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority deferred voting on a proposal to limit time for public comment on Thursday, following outcry from transit advocates.

VTA’s Governance and Audit Committee — Morgan Hill Mayor Rich Constantine, Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, Sunnyvale Vice Mayor Glenn Hendricks and San Jose councilmembers Chappie Jones and Raul Peralez — instead created a new ad hoc committee to discuss how to improve public engagement.

Fewer people will turn up to speak at VTA’s meetings if the proposal for new public comment guidelines is approved, some transit advocates said ahead of the meeting.

Currently, public comments at VTA board meetings are limited to one minute each. General public comments—unrelated to any specific item on the meeting agenda—are heard early in the meeting, after roll call and announcements, continuing until everyone who has asked to speak has done so. This is a key time for people to raise issues that the board may not know about.

The proposal, designed to focus the meetings, limits the first public comment period to 20 minutes. People who don’t get a chance to speak in the first 20 minutes of the meeting will need to wait until near the end of most meetings—after all of the public hearings, committee reports and other work is done.

“It would definitely discourage turnout to VTA meetings,” said Daniel Huynh. “We want more people to be involved in government, not less.”

Huynh, a member of Silicon Valley Youth Climate Action, said he first learned of the proposal last year. At least 14 transit advocates spoke against the new guidelines, and several changes were made, including dropping a proposal that people speaking on behalf of a group select a single spokesperson.

VTA spokesman Ken Blackstone said the proposal follows recommendations made by an independent consultant, RSM US LLP, which assessed ways to improve the agency’s practices.

The proposal is designed to ensure the board has enough time to deliberate and consider items on its agenda, Blackstone said. VTA board meetings can run late. They are typically at least three hours, starting at 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. Some have lasted five hours or more when there are many public comments or a particularly packed agenda.

The Bay Area’s largest transit agencies limit public comment by varying degrees.

The Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District limits general public comment to three minutes for each speaker during board meetings, while the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency offers each speaker two minutes but relegates the public comment period close to the end of the meeting, similar to the proposal before VTA’s board. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) offers speakers three minutes, but the general public comment period is limited to 15 minutes total.

Movement to improve access

The proposed policy coincides with Assembly Bill 339, co-authored by District 25 Assemblymember Alex Lee, which would require public meetings to continue to be remotely accessible. The vote on these guidelines also comes a month before the publication of VTA’s budget proposal for 2022.

Michael Lee, a Santa Clara County resident, said the accessibility of meetings during the pandemic has made it easier for working people and seniors like himself to voice their opinions during the meeting. Lee said limiting the general public comment period to 20 minutes while relegating remaining speakers to near the end of the meeting will have a detrimental effect.

“For senior citizens like myself, who must sleep at a reasonable hour to stay healthy, this policy will likely result in me being excluded from the public process,” Lee said. “As a taxpayer and as someone who is impacted by VTA’s decisions, this is unacceptable.”

Lee said the general public comment period is a vital tool for residents to communicate their most pressing concerns to the board of directors.

“It is critical that the public has a say in overall VTA decisions—not just on agenda items, but on topics that are not explicitly identified by VTA staff,” Lee said. “An example of this would be missed trips due to operator shortages, a problem that left people waiting hours for buses that never arrived on my route.”

 

Huynh agreed that general public comment is essential for residents to provide feedback to the board.

“VTA can learn about issues that it didn’t know it had to address,” Huynh said. “We, the people, are the board’s bosses, and our comments are their evaluations.”

VTA’s Governance and Audit Committee will hold a final vote on the new guidelines tomorrow during the committee’s 4 p.m. meeting. Readers can access the Zoom meeting via this link.

Contact Sonya Herrera at sonya.[email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.

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