The public on Friday got its first look at a long-awaited report from a consultant detailing how to improve the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, but there were no suggestions to elect VTA board members — who are currently appointed by their cities — as some Silicon Valley transit activists had hoped.
A Board of Directors elected specifically to be transit officials is the “most important change” the VTA can make to improve its governance, said transit activist Andrew Boone.
And although there wasn’t any discussion on direct elections at a Friday VTA committee meeting, director Teresa O’Neill — who is also a Santa Clara councilmember — indicated a willingness to open up board seats to members of the public.
“I would lean more towards and really go for a change of having some kind of committee that selects nominees,” O’Neill said. “Whether they’re elected officials or members of the public who apply to be on the board.”
The concern, as highlighted in a recent grand jury report, is a “lack of experience” among VTA board members who are elected officials in their cities and towns, but not transit experts. Some members are active and engaged, while others are not. Currently, the 18 board members are elected officials appointed by their jurisdictions, with fifteen city councilmembers and three members of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.
Mass transit activist Monica Mallon said she “wholeheartedly” supports the direct election of board members. Still, she said she would prefer a board with a full-time focus on transit, even if they are appointed.
“A full-time board of directors that is more responsive to public concerns about transit would be excellent even if it is a smaller board and not elected directly,” Mallon said. “They are spread so thin, I get frustrated with them, but I realize they are running the cities and they are running the county. They have a lot on their plate.”
Instead of a discussion on electing board members, Boone said he and other activists were stunned when consultant RSM made several recommendations that would limit public input at the VTA’s Board of Directors meetings. The suggestions come as Silicon Valley’s mass transit system sees rapidly declining ridership and embarks on new service changes in 2020 following another delay in opening two local BART stations.
One of the recommendations presented at VTA’s Ad Hoc Board Enhancement Committee on Friday is to restrict public comment at board meetings if an agenda item has already been discussed at a committee meeting — which are typically held during weekdays.
RSM also suggested the board move public comment on items not on the agenda to the end of its regular meetings. The San Jose City Council also withholds general public comment until the end of meetings, a source of concern for residents.
“This attempt to kill off public comment at the VTA board meetings is shocking,” Boone told the committee Friday. “To move the non-agenda public comment period from the beginning to the end of meetings is unbelievable. Meetings typically end at 11 p.m. or midnight so this would effectively make it impossible for members of the public to comment at all.”
He noted recent organized attempts to influence the Board of Directors’ decision-making during public comment had been successful, including a push for a climate change emergency declaration. Boone says the only way for most people to reach directors on transit issues is at the board meetings, since they are all elected officials in various cities and towns.
Board director and Mountain View City Councilman John McAlister agreed.
“To move public comment to the end would be disrespectful,” McAlister said. “We have to make sure we respect the public and make sure they have an opportunity to comment.”
Meanwhile, VTA spokeswoman Brandi Childress told San José Spotlight that the full board of directors will consider RSM’s recommendations in 2020 and “they may reject, approve or revise,” any of them.
“These are well thought out recommendations by an independent consultant based on their professional opinion which was informed by significant research, dialogue, analysis and extensive community input over the last five months,” Childress said.
Among RSM’s other controversial recommendations is to eliminate the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and the Committee for Transportation Mobility and Accessibility.
Director O’Neill expressed reservations about that because “those communities are under served and we need to make sure that we are hearing their voices.”
Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.