Philosophically, I think we vote for way too many offices in Washington. It’s fair to say I’m a high-information voter, and I can hardly track the performance of a Lt. Governor, State Auditor, Superintendent of Public Instruction, Commissioner of Public Lands, County Elections Director, School Board, Port of Seattle board, and dozens of judges, to say nothing of the four executives and 15 legislators that represent me at one level or another.* I can’t imagine what it must be like to vote with only a mild interest in local politics. I suspect that if we abolished the entire structure in favor of appointments by Governors, County Executives, and Mayors — and simply held them accountable for performance — we’d probably be objectively better off.
Direct elections to esoteric board positions fundamentally erode accountability. Perhaps a close Port watcher can set me straight, but I think the Port of Seattle seems like a good example of an organization with an elected board and a nearly continuous whiff of scandal and mismanagement.
The bill in Olympia that would replace the appointed Sound Transit Board with an elected one has similar faults. Moreover, the wild swings possible with the mood of an electorate are particularly dangerous to any large capital project which requires steady and competent execution.
In spite of all this, many locals inexplicably like long and complicated ballots. For those people, it really comes down to institutional design. Districts might be arranged to dilute or concentrate the power of the urban core. Board positions could be unpaid or full-time positions, influencing the kind of person that runs for each. In the case of this bill, it’s a part-time position with nominal pay.
There’s a certain strain of opinion that is pro-transit and pro-rail in the abstract but believes that Sound Transit is hopelessly corrupt and/or incompetent. A lot of these people gravitated to the monorail project about a decade ago. Others have concluded that a failure of ST to adopt their preferred policy on a particular issue is proof of their perfidy. If you’re in that camp, then I suppose reforming the board couldn’t possibly make things any worse. Personally, I see ST as a well-intentioned bureaucracy that suffers under some unfortunate external incentives and constraints, and has some of the inherent weaknesses of large organizations. None of those weaknesses are actually solved by an elected board.
Furthermore, I think proceeding with all possible haste will get us where we want faster than trying to expend organizational time and energy trying to optimize governance. Writing the RTA law right in 1995 might have produced a better Sound Transit and a better rail system. Rewriting it now will do neither.
* Not an exhaustive list of elected offices!