After the dedicated-funding law effectively sidelines half the Metro board, some ask: What’s the goal?
June 2, 2018
By The 2030 Group
By: Faiz Siddiqui
Half the Metro board has been sidelined because of a provision in Virginia’s landmark dedicated-funding law, leaving some to ask what lawmakers sought to accomplish with the stipulation — and what it means for the panel’s future.
Some policymakers, advocates and elected officials say the confusion over the status of the board members is an example of how lawmakers and others were so focused on giving the agency more money that they neglected to seriously address its governance and real reform.
“I think what we’re probably watching is a little bit of unfinished business,” said Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director of the Federal City Council, an influential business group.
“We all kind of dug in really hard to secure the funding to . . . fix the system. Perhaps there was not enough of a real focus of working through the details on what full and comprehensive governance reform looks like,” said Moneme, who also is a former District transportation director and Metro board member.
The Metro board has 16 members — two voting and two alternates each from Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government. In exchange for the state’s portion of the additional $500 million a year in dedicated funding for the agency, the Virginia law prohibits alternate board members from participating in meetings unless they are sitting in place of an absent board member.
The stipulation was thought to be an attempt to streamline the board and reduce discord among its factions. But some board members and observers now wonder if the legislation goes beyond what Virginia lawmakers had intended and whether they understood its potential to slow the business of the board and deplete the panel of expertise.
If Metro fails to follow the rules, it risks losing 20 percent of existing state funding; the $154 million a year in new dedicated funding is not in jeopardy, state officials said.
While the law does not take effect until July 1, officials began the process of reducing alternates’ roles at the May 24 board meeting. There were no name tags for them at the board table, nor seats designated for them. Some sat in a section of the boardroom usually occupied by agency staff; one sat where members of the public sit while they wait to testify before the board; others sat in the back with the rest of the audience.
Board members said that officials have interpreted the law to mean alternates also are barred from serving as committee chairs or even participating in meetings at the committee level.
During a closed session at the May 24 meeting at which board members were briefed on the changes, things became so tense that at least one board member said he planned to step down immediately, according to several individuals with knowledge of the proceedings.
The board member, Robert Lauby, is a federal appointee who also is chief safety officer at the Federal Railroad Administration.
Lauby told the group that without the power to participate in board meetings, chair a committee or contribute in any role greater than that of a general audience member, he saw no reason to remain on the board. Lauby had begun to thank his colleagues for the experience and to convey his intention to step aside when they persuaded him to delay his decision until there was further clarity on the role of the alternates.
“We were all shocked,” said one official who was in the room but, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because matters discussed during executive session are private.
Lauby, reached by phone, declined to comment.
Jennifer Mitchell, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said her agency is working with the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission on guidelines spelling out the role of alternates. The rules should be finished by July 1.
Dels. Tim Hugo (R-Fairfax County), Richard C. “Rip” Sullivan Jr. (D-Fairfax) and Christopher K. Peace (R-Hanover), the House conferees on the legislation, did not respond to requests for comment on lawmakers’ rationale or intent with the bill.
Brian Coy, a spokesman for Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), however, said reducing the role of nonvoting members reflects a key recommendation of the Metro reform proposal by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood.
LaHood, who wrote a plan to overhaul the agency at the request of former governor Terry McAuliffe (D), recommended that the board be replaced with a five-member “reform board,” with both governors, the D.C. mayor and the U.S. transportation secretary each appointing members, who would select a chair.
But LaHood’s proposal was scuttled amid fears it would require officials to reopen Metro’s governing compact, a complicated political prospect. The new format is what state officials intended, Coy said.
“Our plan is to work with the regions and the organizations in the compact between now and July 1 to identify the proper role, probably a slightly new role for these alternates, and make sure we have a plan that works for everybody and is open and transparent and accountable,” Coy said. “The current regime, it’s unclear how many bosses [Metro General Manager] Paul Wiedefeld has. We’re trying to clear lines and make sure he knows who he’s taking direction from.”
LaHood, however, is unconvinced merely halving the current board is as effective as starting from scratch.
“Look, we did a study, we took our best ideas and put them in the report, and one of our best ideas was a five-person reform board,” he said. “ . . . It doesn’t go far enough for me.”
LaHood said that regional executives and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao should convene to work out the details of establishing a true reform board. He also reiterated his contention that the new panel could be instituted without reopening the compact — as outlined in a legal opinion included in his report.
“Five is the magic number because it’s small enough that you get a group of people that are committed to the overall [system],” LaHood said. “They’re not committed to a region, they’re not committed to a community; they’re not committed to whoever appointed them, they’re committed to Metro and making Metro the finest system in the country.”
Alternate Tom Bulger criticized the law for its ambiguity. He said it shows disrespect for the hours of work alternates put in to hold committee meetings, including setting agendas, hours-long conference calls and providing expertise on a range of issues including real estate, pensions and safety. The new format — calling in alternates only when a board member is absent — is unworkable.
“I just don’t understand the motive and the rationale for treating the alternates as second-class citizens and producing a brain drain,” Bulger said.
“I gotta slide down the fire pole and go down there, and not know what the hell is even on the agenda?” he said. “I’m gonna have my hands tied.”
He said that the law also is an example of the politics board members have been criticized for in the past. And it could portend trouble for future of the system.
“Let me get to the bottom line: They do the brain drain, people lose interest, can’t make meetings cause they don’t know if they’re coming or going, and we go back to where we were three, four years ago. where there’s nobody watching the steering wheel,” he said. “And we get back to bad again.”