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Dear COG and Board of Trade: Democracy is healthy

Last week, the Board of Trade/COG WMATA Governance Task Force held a public meeting to hear ideas from stakeholders about improving WMATA's governance.

Photo by LarimdaME on Flickr.

Sadly, the Board of Trade and COG continued their trend of keeping the task force quite distant from those who actually work hard to improve WMATA. The meeting was structured like a typical public hearing where public officials are required to endure public comment, and scheduled at 9:00 am, which excluded many people with day jobs.

Time limits were kept lower than most DC Council hearings I've attended, and the Board of Trade's Jim Dyke brusquely cut off anyone who had more to say. Members asked no questions of the presenters, either nodding along or nodding off to sleep as Dyke looked irritated at having to take the time.

I'd spent considerable effort on preparing ideas for the group, only some of which I was able to present. Below are my comments.

One of the most famous of Winston Churchill's many famous quotes is about democracy. "Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time," he said, and has been quoted so often that it is almost a cliché.

But this common quotation doesn't merely mean that all government is bad, and democracy is the least bad. Democracy's warts are also more visible than those of other forms of government, which is why they have been tried from time to time even after the advent of democracy.

Democracy has lots of problems. It's messy. People argue and can't seem to work together. Big decisions take time. Quarrels are out in the open for others to criticize. Yet for all its faults, anything else has more.

Members of the task force, there are some forces in our region that seek to make the WMATA Board less messy and chaotic. Wouldn't it be great if all this partisan squabbling stopped and a few people simply made the decisions? That's what every dictator has said.

Yes, the WMATA Board often argues for weeks about major issues. Some of its members at various times are very obstinate about getting their way. They fight publicly.

However, this fractiousness at the WMATA Board is not the problem with Metro. I see countless rider complaints, on blogs, email, Twitter and more. Virtually none of the complaints with Metro involve the Board. They involve the service. Most riders don't care how much the Board fights. Only the Washington Post editorial board seems to have a big problem with that.

But riders do care if the Board listens. When riders do have problems, the elected officials on the Board are far more responsive to their concerns than the unelected members. If service is the disease, the democratic aspects of the Board are a salve if not a complete cure.

I don't know whether any of you approach this task force with the preconceived goal of reducing the representation of elected officials on the WMATA Board. If so, please abandon that notion. The idea would be dead on arrival with riders.

But I will assume you have no preconceived notions. Still, some of you come from the business world, where I worked for most of my own career. And you may be thinking about how to apply some of the lessons of corporate governance to WMATA. That is a worthy objective. But please do not entertain the idea that the closed and unaccountable nature of corporate boards is one such advantage.

As any libertarian is fond of pointing out, we can all choose not to patronize any particular corporation. Since rail and local bus transit does not lend itself to competition, we don't have that luxury. Therefore, a democratic process, messy as it may be, is the only appropriate approach.

One way to meaningfully improve the WMATA Board would be to add more elected officials and even directly elected individual representatives to the Board. According to TCRP Report 85, most transit agencies have elected officials, and a number include directly elected representatives to great success. WMATA's biggest problem today is a lack of rider confidence. How better to restore that confidence than to give riders some direct stake in the policymaking process?

There are several additional ways to improve the Board's composition. For one, Board members must be regular riders of some part of the Metro system. Otherwise, it is far too easy for a Board member to put other policy considerations above the best interests of the riders. Board members often say that they know the issues well as they hear from riders directly, but there is no substitute for experiencing them directly.

Second, Board members must be willing to make the commitment to participate actively, even the alternate members. When vigorous debate is taking place, if some representatives are not present, they aren't able to bring their jurisdiction's needs into the mix. Even the alternate members have significant influence both because they can participate in discussion and because they can vote in committees. When any jurisdiction's alternate members shirk this responsibility, the entire Board suffers.

The Board chairman currently has too much control over information. Staff generally send presentations only to the Chair, who can and often does delete information or ask for changes. This is inappropriate, especially with the chairmanship rotating on a regular basis. All members should receive information early and should get it unfiltered by whomever happens to control the chairmanship.

TCRP report 85 specifically lists "timely receipt of information" as a key influence on transit board effectiveness. With information bottlenecking through the Chair, receipt of information is far from timely today. On several occasions I have found out about an upcoming agenda item and asked a Board member, only to be told that he or she hadn't yet received the memo in questions which I had before my eyes.

Relatedly, the Board must provide for more ways to collect information from riders before making decisions. I don't want to slow down their decisionmaking, which doesn't need to be slower than it is. However, many significant policy issues often come before the Board that they haven't had the opportunity to learn about in much detail. Members of the public often see the presentations mere days before, and sometimes do not at all. There is then no public comment period before the issue comes before a committee.

As a result, Board members lack the opportunity to hear important details from knowledgeable riders. The unelected members don't even have an official way for riders to reach them. The Riders' Advisory Council typically lacks the lead time on these issues to be able to advise the Board. The Board should have a more robust process for getting feedback before they make decisions on fairly intricate policy or technical matters. That could involve a public comment period before committee meetings, a better electronic process, or other solutions.

The WMATA Board could be much better. It could also be much worse. It should not be less democratic, no matter the appeal of a more efficient and less argumentative process. I hope your report will identify ways to fix some of the flaws in the process to make the Board both more effective and more democratic at the same time. Thank you.

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. 


Add a comment » one cares.

by SFCDad on Jul 7, 2010 1:39 am • linkreport

Well, some people do care, granted it's a very small percentage of the population. But this is a very thorough analysis of the current situation and some really goo recommendations. It's too bad nobody's going to do anything.

by Andrew on Jul 7, 2010 8:37 am • linkreport

Good analysis, excellent recommendations. This analysis could be applied to any number of "representative" bodies and public hearings in DC. And yes, few people care, especially at the top. So, how do we make them care?

by Jude on Jul 7, 2010 8:42 am • linkreport

You sir are an idiot. The problem with the board is that it's full of folks who are used to giving out constituent services for votes, not running organizations profitably and safely.

Most folks don't complain about the board because they don't see the unholy alliance between the DC City Council, soft headed suburban politicians and the WTU. It's a relationship that prevents any executive management at WMATA from ever being able to execute a properly functioning system. They can't fire anyone, because the arbitrator that was foisted on them by the WTU and the Board is in the hands of the WTU. They can't align rates with costs (both operational and replacement) because the DC City Council wants WMATA ridership to bare the brunt of DC's poverty problem (rather than paying for subsidies from DC's own budget). The WTU, which by any fair standard is run by a certifiable wacko, rewards the DC Council with election support and votes.

What you see today is the inevitable effect of 30 years of underinvestment in infrastructure and the inability to cull bad apples, or even redundant apples from the employment ranks. It's now a "racist" action to fire any WMATA employee. On what planet does this make any sense?

If DC's Congressional oversight committee wants to make an actual difference in the lives of DC residents, they can stop opposing gay marriage and pot centers and mount a federal takeover of WMATA BEFORE MORE PEOPLE DIE. The WMATA board has boxed the organization into a financial death spiral and no one has shown even the inkling of responsibility.

"Dedicated funding" is a real sweat sounding way of saying "federal bailout for our fiscal mismanagement". Metro can operate just fine on ridership funding if it learns that it can't be a safe, efficient mode of transportation and also a vehicle for righting the wrongs of slavery and a vehicle for social financial redistribution.

by Jimbo on Jul 7, 2010 12:36 pm • linkreport

Jumbo, you assume that the solution must come from an oversight committee or government organization. But even the gov't isn't accountable unless the typical citizen cares. The solution, even under the current regime, is for the general public to be interested and put pressure on the leaders to make intelligent decisions.

by Andrew on Jul 7, 2010 4:54 pm • linkreport

WMATA's biggest problem today is a lack of rider confidence.

Incorrect. WMATA's biggests problems are underfunding and overcrowding. Democracy yeah!

by Jasper on Jul 8, 2010 12:05 pm • linkreport

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