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Shouldn't "we" have a say in WMATA's future?

You might never know it, but influential business leaders and former elected officials are meeting behind closed doors to determine the future of WMATA's board and whether you have board members who listen to your concerns.

Photo by Kevin McShane.

The Greater Washington Board of Trade is a lobbying group made up of business leaders from the Washington region. It pushes for policies that benefit businesses, which is a totally reasonable thing to do, and has some very intelligent and thoughtful members. But, of course, it is an interest group.

The Board of Trade decided to create a "task force" to look at restructuring the WMATA board. It asked the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), an association of local governments across the region, to participate.

And here's where it gets weird. Without telling anyone ahead of time or soliciting input, COG, chaired by DC Council member Kwame Brown (a candidate for DC Council chair), went ahead and signed on to the Board of Trade's task force. That puts an official imprimatur on a project that's still dominated by one particular group, businesses.

Other advocacy groups, such as the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Sierra Club and Action Committee for Transit, said, wait a minute. If this is an officially sponsored project by local governments, shouldn't other opinions, such as those of riders and rider advocates, be represented? On Wednesday, the COG board rejected this suggestion, and many elected officials showed a disappointing contempt for including the public in such an important decision as how to structure our region's transit agency.

COG officials argued that they shouldn't include any "advocates," because if they include some, they have to include them all. But that mysteriously ignores one very important point: the Board of Trade, which appointed almost half the members, is itself an advocacy group. Its Web site even says so. Instead, Brown decided to appoint himself and two other current elected officials, Penelope Gross of Fairfax and Andrea Harrison of Prince George's, to the task force.

COG staff had said that COG's participation was important because it would open up the process and make it more accessible to the public. But when interested observers showed up at Friday's first meeting at the Board of Trade headquarters, they were told it was private. The Board of Trade wants an official stamp on its activities, but it doesn't want anyone to know what it's up to.

They plan to hold a hearing to get some public input, and say they will accept public comment on the draft report, but this is merely token participation. The task force will decide its recommendations based on the agendas and interests of the members, and the deliberations themselves are happening in secret thus far. COG's participation could give the report a more official sheen for decisionmakers and in the press than a report just issued by the Board of Trade, but it won't be truly representative of the range of views and the business agenda will still dominate.

There's some reason to believe the Board of Trade already has a specific end-goal in mind: removing elected officials from the WMATA board and replacing them with unaccountable members appointed by area chief executives, as . That would be a terrible idea. The members who most listen to riders and rider concerns are typically the elected officials on the board, like those from Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and the District. Meanwhile, the Maryland members, appointed directly by the governor, are some of the least accessible.

Our region's transit system is too important to too many people to be run by a group of unaccountable insiders. And debates about how to structure the agency are critical to riders and the public.

Kwame Brown wants to portray himself as a man of the people. His Web site is even titled "The We District." Is this for real or is it just show? As voters get ready to make up their minds, they'll be looking to see whether Brown truly wants the District to be one where "we" participate in deciding our futures together, or just one where where he and some influential campaign contributors make all the decisions behind closed doors and "we" simply obey.

Cross-posted at the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Not to be too snarky, but aren't the new federal reps on the board, hailed as a great advance a few months ago, umm, unelected representatives appointed by a chief executive?

Poltiicans, like zimmerman, might be more, hmm, political, than an appointed rep and pay more attention to special interests. But most of the problems in the past few years have seemed to be more of a problem with the entire state of Maryland and WMATA -- rather than a function of catering to outside interest groups.

WMATA has a terrible transparency problem, but it seems rooted in the GM and culture of the employees -- not necessarily in the board.

by chARlie on Jun 14, 2010 12:03 pm • linkreport

@chARlie How are the Maryland reps and their abuse of Montgomery/Prince George's any worse than the bow-tied one Ghramstanding for Ward 1's "poor"? Because of Graham we have bus fares that are below-average and rail fares spiraling out of control rather than a balanced system that could become unified.

by Jason on Jun 14, 2010 12:19 pm • linkreport

Ugh. If your description of this situation is accurate, it sounds like front-page WaPo and NYT material.

In one sentence:
The "Board of Trade" - a regional business-interests advocacy group - coopts the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments into private consultation and decision-making on how to eliminate elected representatives from the WMATA board.

Do I understand your post correctly? Does it not sound outrageous? Does it not sound like a significant back-room event that will ripple around our region for decades?

Having elected officials directly responsible for WMATA board decisions seems like an excellent situation for everyone except anyone who thinks WMATA should be kept impotent and mediocre. I like the fact that Jim Graham, for example, is elected and that part of his re-election is necessarily doing an acceptable job for WMATA. It's a great feedback loop.

Thank you.

by pinkshirt on Jun 14, 2010 12:34 pm • linkreport

David: I agree with your assertions here. However, I must admit that I personally would not want to be part of this COG-BOT independent review process, which I believe is both flawed and incredibly biased. I wish the local leaders from the BOT would instead focus their energy on making certain our transit system is adequately funded. There's already a COG report that backs up the need for that.

by Penny Everline on Jun 14, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

Looking forward to the impending "Kwame Brown / Vince Gray Era" of DC open governance. Party like it's 1989!

by oboe on Jun 14, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

@Jason; that is also my point. Elected politicians on the board are going to listen to squeaky wheels. You might not like the results, but that is a feature, not a bug.

by charlie on Jun 14, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

I think 'obey' is a good word. Another description might be that "we" are only eligible to 'ratify' the plans that are put to us. We're given a choice of 'select this one plan with this one alternative, or do nothing at all, in which case the system will crumble.'

It's the false "you are either with us or against us" dichotomy set up so well by George W. Bush. There are always better options than what the corporations and paid-for politicians say there are.

by Peter Smith on Jun 14, 2010 4:52 pm • linkreport

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