Zimmerman, Hudgins pushed for public discussion of budget
The WMATA Board discussed proposed service cuts for Fiscal Year 2010 as a surprise addition to the agenda last week, but they almost didn't discuss it in public at all.
They will be reconvening on Thursday, January 7th to discuss the proposals. There is some urgency to make the changes since the longer Metro waits to cut, the worse cuts (or fare increases) must be to balance the budget in the time remaining. However, moving quickly doesn't necessarily mean moving secretly.
According to sources familiar with the Board discussions, the Board almost discussed the changes entirely within their executive session last week. Since this topic didn't appear on the agenda ahead of time, that could have meant the Board heard a presentation on budget issues and debated cuts entirely without any public communication.
Virginia's voting members, Chris Zimmerman of Arlington and Catherine Hudgins of Fairfax, objected to this, which is why the Board subsequently discussed it publicly. At that public session, Zimmerman urged Metro to make the various "tables" of budget information that explain the $36 million in cost reductions besides the $4 million of service cuts. Zimmerman also noted the unfairness of a policy that lets the General Manager cut bus service without Board approval but requires it for rail cuts.
Another asymmetry is that fare increases require public hearings but rail cuts below a certain size do not. Most commenters here prefer raising the fares on late-night rail service instead of reducing headways to 30 minutes per line. Did Metro choose the reduction instead of the fare increase primarily because they can do it without hearings?
The Board needs freedom to act quickly when necessary, but they should still seek as much input as possible. Debating key budget issues in executive session should be totally out. And Board members should provide some opportunities for people to weigh in even absent a formal hearing.
That can start with a public comment period at the special meeting, despite current practice of only having one at regular meetings. But most people can't show up at 11 am on a Thursday with the possibility of waiting until noon or later. DC and Virginia Board members at least have public email addresses, while Maryland members do not. We still have seen little sign that emails to BoardOfDirectors@wmata.com reach members' eyes.
The WMATA compact may vest decisionmaking in a small Board of Directors and give them powers to make certain changes without input, but that doesn't absolve them of the moral responsibility to listen to riders' opinions. Unfortunately, except for Zimmerman and Hudgins' insistence on sunlight, there was little sign of that in last week's meeting.
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