Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 17, 2009

Elect – don’t appoint – VTA directors

Earlier this month, South County’s representatives to the Valley Transportation Authority — Greg Sellers from Morgan Hill and Perry Woodward from Gilroy — boldly ignored the usual representation scheme for the seat that the two cities share with Milpitas on the transit agency’s board of directors. The smaller cities in the VTA’s service area are grouped together to share a board seat. Each group has one director and one alternate. Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Milpitas make up Group 4.

VTA directors usually serve in their roles for two-year terms. Milpitas Mayor Bob Livengood was alternate for Group 4 in 2008 and expected to continue in that role in 2009. But at a Group 4 meeting earlier this month, Sellers and Woodward voted to make Woodward the 2009 alternate. Livengood is livid.

Sellers’ and Woodward’s move took lots of chutzpah, but it looks like it’s well within the transit agency’s rules. VTA spokeswoman Jennie Loft told the paper that it’s up to each group to choose its own representation.

The move illustrates several interesting points.

First, this is one of the rare times when South County has more political clout than a North County community. South County’s cities outvote Milpitas in Group 4. I can’t think of another time that South County has outvoted anyone. Generally, our rural locale and concomitant lower population mean that we have much less political clout that than densely packed, urban North County communities.

So, although I understand Livengood’s anger, and the Golden Rule keeps popping into my head whenever I think about Sellers’ and Woodward’s move, I can’t help but savor this rare taste of political power and enjoy a moment of schadenfreude.

But more importantly, the move highlights the inherent unfairness of the current VTA board structure. Any city that is lumped into a group with other cities is unrepresented on the board for significant chunks of time. Because Group 4 cities share one seat among three cities, each city in Group 4 has only an alternate one-third of the time, and no representation another one-third of the time.

That’s a big problem, but what’s worse is that VTA directors are appointed by their city councils, not directly voted into office.

I’m forced to wonder, who do VTA directors from groups represent? Should they vote according to how their city’s council members direct them? After all, they serve because their fellow city council members appointed them.

Should they vote according to how the city council members of all of the cities in their group direct them? After all, they’re supposed to represent all three cities.

Should they vote according to how the residents in their individual city direct them? After all, if they irk enough residents in their individual cities, they might not be re-elected to their city council posts.

Or, should they vote according to how the residents in all the cities in their group direct them? After all, that’s ultimately who they represent.

When cities with vastly different needs and interests are grouped together, as is the case with Group 4, this problem becomes acute. For example, the boondoggle BART extension will run through Milpitas, and won’t come close to Morgan Hill and Gilroy. That’s likely to be a repeated consideration as VTA directors decide how to spend scarce resources under the best of circumstances. But, when BART costs exceed projections and ridership fails to meet projections (that’s what happened with the BART-to-SFO extension, and there’s no reason to expect anything different with BART-to-San Jose), watch for fur to fly.

Sellers’ plan to address this is to rearrange the way cities are grouped on the VTA board, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

I favor creating a directly elected VTA board with enough seats so that communities aren’t lumped into districts with other cities with which they share few interests. That requires state legislation, but our legislators are currently too occupied with not solving the yawning $42 billion budget deficit to deal with something as basic as ensuring fair representation.

My husband would go even further, creating one agency to handle all of the Bay Area’s public transit systems. He’s frustrated by the lack of coordination between multiple public transit systems. I share his concerns but worry that a region-wide system will dilute the representation of rural communities like South County even more.

Sellers’ and Woodward’s cheeky move highlighted the flaws of the VTA board structure. What — if anything at all — will we do about it?

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  1. […] importance of accountability to voters is why I favor directly electing Valley Transportation Authority board members. Currently, member cities’ […]


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