Folks in the DC area are aparently unhappy with the way in which the WMATA board has let the Metro system deteriorate over the decades. That caused Greater Greater Washington to wonder what makes a good governing board structure:
The RAC [Rider’s Advisory Council] developed 6 high-level recommendations:
- The Board is analogous to a legislature and should include public officials.
- The Board should set clear, high standards for its members.
- The Board should focus on high-level policy and objectives.
- The Board should act as a regional body rather than as individuals.
- WMATA’s top staff member should be a CEO rather than a General Manager.
- Board decision-making should include a clear and accessible public input process.
Here in Greater Seattle, we have two governing boards with substantially different structures. How do they stack up?
I’d say that Sound Transit’s board fares pretty well according to these criteria. The Board consists of a number of local elected officials nominated by the County Executives, meaning that they tend to reflect the Executive’s regional vision rather than narrow constituencies. Furthermore, my subjective sense is that ST staff are pretty liberated to execute policy without looking over their shoulders.
On the other hand, the King County Council is the governing board for Metro, and while not a disaster there are certainly some weaknesses. In particular, there are instances of the Council responding to vocal interest groups by tweaking Metro’s plans. Worse yet, the Council is absolutely driven by parochial concerns rather than a regional vision: 40/40/20 is the obvious example.
I’m very much an advocate of having fewer elected officials to make the ones we do have more accountable for the government’s overall performance. Nevertheless, I wonder if an Executive-appointed Metro board might not do a better job of governance, even if it was drawn from a pool of local politicians.
Of course, a directly-elected board would be the worst of all possible worlds, as members’ only way to impact their constituencies would be to be ultra-defensive of their district’s resources and ultra-responsive to anyone who complains about an agency initiative. I think the institutional design of the Regional Transportation Authority is one of the most under-appreciated aspects of the enabling legislation.