Buried in the text of the Monorail petition is this explanation of the proposed governance structure:

(a) Nominating Entities – Allocation of Nominating Sources and Nominated Candidates for Board Positions. The first and successive board members for the Board shall be selected only from the ranks of each of the following Seattle-based organizations or institutions of the successors thereto: for Board Position 1 – one individual from the Sierra Club Cascade Chapter, for Board Positions 2 and 3 – two individuals only from the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition, for Board Position 4 – one individual from the Downtown Seattle Association, for Board Position 5 – one individual from the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, for Board Positions 6, 7, and 8 – one individual each from each of the following University of Washington departments, a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s Economics Department, and a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus from the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments, for Board Positions 9 and 10 – two individuals who regularly participate in the affairs of or belong to any of the City of Seattle’s District Councils, and for Board Position 11 – one individual from the Manufacturing Industrial Council of Seattle.

These nominees would be confirmed by the City Council. The board would then pick its last two members, without Council approval, from a self-nominated pool of applicants. Public officials are explicitly prohibited from board membership.

By the standards of most Puget Sound rhetoric, the proposed entity is “unaccountable” because the members aren’t directly elected. But I’m on record that directly elected boards are terrible, in fact only accountable to single-issue hacks like us and people with a vested interest.

That said, the problem with this proposal is that the nominating entities are themselves unaccountable, although Council oversight partially mitigates that. Furthermore, several of the anointed organizations have a history of status quo bias and overwrought concern about “impacts” than bode ill for good transit planning.

The ideal form of accountability would be the Mayor appointing the Board with Council confirmation, and holding them accountable for the general conditions in Seattle of which transportation, including the monorail authority, is a part.

There are many good reasons to vote against the monorail petition, but the desire for a directly elected board is not one of them. What do you think of the proposed structure?

37 Replies to “The Monorail’s Interesting Governance Structure”

  1. I don’t know if this is how real planning committees are organized, but explicitly declaring where committee members are to be selected from seems like a lousy idea. It’s entirely possible that none of the entities the committee members are selected from will select people with actual planning skills (like engineers or finance people) and instead just pick a bunch of people to represent each committee’s wants (read: complaints) for the project. Maybe they’ll get lucky by picking some professors from UW who know what they’re doing, but I highly, highly suspect that nothing will actually get done by selecting the committee members in this fashion. And the last two committee members that are picked without council approval sounds like it’d easily turn into a nepotism-fest.

    The monorail initiative was a bad idea before I read this segment, but now it’s even worse.

  2. Pretty bad idea, IMO. At least with boards appointed by elected officials, I can influence the elected officials in my district. No so with this structure, which seems designed to entrench special interest groups.

    As a private citizen who doesn’t belong to any of the stated organizations, I could only concievably influence 4 of the 11 board members (the Seattle Neighborhood Coalition and District Council seats), and not even that if the District Council members were not from my neighborhood. The 3 UW professors would be basically untouchable to the public, and it is unclear why there should be 3.

    There are lots of constituencies not represented on the board. Why 3 UW professors but no community college professors? What about diversity groups (especially if the board ended up with a large majority of white men)? Advocates for the mobility-challenged, senior citizens, and low-income people? Same for cyclists, STB contributors (seriously – you’d probably have better transit backgrounds than most of the board), property developers, lawyers, labor unions, the arts community – they can all make cases to be included.

    The only silver lining I could see from this board structure is that I imagine it would be so disfunctional that nothing would happen, which would be the best possible outcome should this actually pass.

    1. I think the listed UW professors are meant to be acknowledged leaders in their field, there as technocrats rather than as representatives of any particular interest group.

      Between all the “professor emeritus” and neighborhood council types on this list, I doubt senior citizen representation is going to be a problem. But I think the list is representative of what a certain kind of neighborhood activist thinks is left out at City Hall.

      1. Put me down as liking the Sound Transit governance structure as-is.

        As for other entities, should the monorail authority be resurrected in a week or at some point in the future I agree having the mayor appoint and the city council approve members seems like the sanest thing to do. I wish we could do something similar for the Seattle School Board.

        Similarly I’d like it better if Metro was governed by a board appointed by the county executive and approved by the county council. The same for the Port Comission.

        The same applies to just about every other specialized entity or office including sewer districts, fire districts, conservation districts, hospital districts, PUD’s, sheriffs, judges, insurance commissioner, superintendent of public instruction,treasurer, Secretary of State, etc. Those should all be appointed by mayors, county executives, or the governor and approved by city councils, county councils, or the legislature as appropriate.

        I can see merit in electing prosecutors and auditors as those offices should be inedependent but at the same time because they are directly elected they’ve had issues with canidates with an agenda both here and elsewhere.

      2. Sadly, in this country we are raised to believe that voting is always a good thing and anything less is undemocratic, because we aren’t given a good understanding of how democracy actually works beyond the explicit structures in the Constitution. And now’s an especially bad time to try to change that what with all the distrust of “experts” and “elitists”, though a liberal haven like Seattle would seem like a better place to try than most (of course, Seattle’s nowhere near the liberal haven the rest of the country thinks it is, legal pot aside).

        Besides, on the federal level we can see that having the executive appoint officials that are confirmed by the legislature doesn’t always work the way you’d like it to, though that may say more about the President and Congress than about that structure.

      3. It says ” a tenured faculty member or professor emeritus”, not “only” professors emeritus.

  3. I think the governing board proposal, like most of the monorail proposal, is whacky.

    But I do want to comment about directly elected boards, because somehow I missed that post, and I have strong opinions on the matter. Full disclosure: my mom was elected to the Seattle school board (a directly elected board). I think in general (and even in her case) this is a bad idea. Not to say that the school board doesn’t get good candidates (I was very much impressed with the previous group) but in general, I think it is a bad idea. In general, the school board, like the port commissioners, judges and the sheriff should operate as moderate managers. There are controversies, to be sure, but they tend to be rare, and better off handled by a reasonable board, or in some cases, by the representatives that appointed the board. For example, let the port decide to raise the minimum wage at SeaTac, but I don’t want someone running on that platform. That could easily get us single issue hacks (who know nothing about the port). I think it is much better if the city council appoint those people — and if the appointees do something they don’t like (such as not raising the minimum wage) — then the city council can replace the appointee (after his or her term is up).

    But I do think a directly appointed board makes sense if there are dozens of controversial issues to be decided. This isn’t the case with the monorail. They will build it or not. If it is built, the board would decide exactly where it would go, but that is about it.

    But I don’t think that is the case with public transportation in general. There are numerous decisions to be made, and they are every bit as complex and controversial as what the Seattle city council has to deal with on a regular basis. Off the top of my head, I can think of several: Should we move to a gridded bus system? How much money should we spend on BRT, streetcars, light rail or gondolas? These are very controversial, and very important to the city right now. I’m afraid that the city and county council, because their focus is elsewhere, rarely deal with these issues. With a directly elected transit board, there is still the danger of single issue quackery, but we see that right now, with the city council (Sawant ran on raising the minimum wage, rent control and an income tax). But with a directly elected transit board, voters would have the chance to judge a candidate on both their proposals, as well as their experience and ability to get along with a board.

    But of course, the big problem with such a board is the mix of agencies in the region, and their funding limitations. You have the city, the county, Sound Transit and the state. The city can build streetcars, gondolas and alter the streets to benefit the buses. But they can’t decide the bus routes. Nor do they have enough taxing authority to pay for decent light rail. The county runs the buses, but again, doesn’t have the taxing authority for light rail. Sound Transit has the taxing authority, when it is granted by the state. The state does nothing directly for transit, except that it builds the freeways. This actually puts them in position to greatly improve the bus system. They are the ones that will add that HOV ramp that saves each bus ten minutes. As mentioned, they are the ones that control the purse strings, as mentioned. Not only do they control the most money, but they are the ones that can allow or prevent smaller jurisdictions from paying for things themselves.

    Given all that, I think every board would be quite limited in its power and scope. This means that I have come full circle. If there is very little power and scope and if the members of any transit board interact with other agencies a lot, then it makes sense for such a board to be appointed, and not directly elected.

    1. I think the set of “complex and controversial” issues is a strong argument against direct election. Gridded bus systems and appropriate budget levels for each mode are very wonky issues with little clear connection to people’s lives; in fact, the effect on people’s lives is actually counter-intuitive, which is one reason that gridded systems are unpopular.

      People are going to hold the Mayor of Seattle accountable for whether they can get around or not anyway, so let’s give him as much power as we can to actually influence that state.

      1. We elect officials to deal with complex and controversial issues. That is why we elect a president, congress, the mayor and various other representatives. This makes sense, right? Your post suggest otherwise, but I assume you still believe that a representative democracy makes sense, and that our representatives should make complex and controversial decisions every day (that’s their job).

        The last mayor was defeated in large part because he couldn’t handle the police crisis. He was elected because the previous mayor couldn’t shovel the streets when it snowed. These are what mayors are supposed to do. Public transportation never came up. Similarly, I have never heard any representative of the county even address the issue of a gridded bus line. They have other, some would argue, more important things to think about. That is my point.

        It makes sense to “divide and conquer”, if you will, and have various groups handle various complex issues. Public transportation sits in a nether world of being complex and controversial enough to warrant political, rather than simply expert opinion, while being not important enough to justify a vote on that basis. Again, public transportation never comes up as an issue when it comes to electing officials. Not in the city, not in the county, not in the state. That is why almost all of these ideas are coming from us, not our representatives. It’s not that they are stupid, its just that they have more important things to worry about. Vote for candidate X because he supports a gridded bus system would sound ridiculous. Candidate X would get laughed out of there very quickly. But run on better police accountability, funding day care or raising the minimum wage and you can expect a well reasoned, thoughtful debate. We aren’t even talking about a gridded bus system because no one would run on that issue. The same is true in the city. The votes taken on the streetcar (which I think are a waste of money) will be soon forgotten. Likewise, no one runs on gondolas, despite the fact that they make a lot of sense for particular parts of this region. These aren’t issues that are seriously discussed amongst those in power, unless somebody comes up with an initiative, and then tries to get the rest of the city to buy into it. That is hardly the way things should be done (and it is obvious that it has failed miserably in the past) but we really have little other choice.

      2. >> And direct election of transit agencies is very likely to produce people who are elected to maintain the status quo.

        Why do say that? I think it would be the opposite. No one talks about public transportation, for the reason I mentioned. It’s just not important enough compared to everything else a politician has to handle. This means that a politician has little to gain by stirring up controversy. Maintaining the status quo is a good way to avoid controversy.

        On the other hand, if we directly elected public transportation officials, then they would at least have to answer questions about public transportation. To cite an obvious example, they would have to say whether they support a streetcar or not. But run for the city council or mayor, and this doesn’t come up. Considering the fact that neither the city council, the mayor, nor the county have ever done much of anything besides support the status quo when it comes to public transportation, I think a different approach might be more successful.

    2. We talked about this when the districting proposal came along, but I wouldn’t say no to electing the city council by putting all the candidates in a single pot, allowing people to vote for as many as they like (possibly up to X), and the top X candidates get elected. I wonder if that might help weed out the quacks, or maybe it actually makes them easier to get elected since you can support them without taking away a vote from someone more reasonable. I wonder how such a structure would affect elected boards.

      I’m surprised you ever thought the “complex and controversial” issues facing transportation in the region was ever an argument for electing transportation people. As Martin says, those are the sorts of things that call for experts, not politicians.

  4. I doubt highly that the monorail law could compel these organizations to send members to the board. For example, the UW is a state institution and the monorail law can’t compel a state agency to do much of anything.

    1. I imagine the monorail folks have some willing candidates lined up that the UW bodies will likely rubber-stamp, but is interesting to think what would happen if one of these colleges just refused to play along.

      1. Or just didn’t care enough to make one of their faculty do it. If no one signs up, what would the monorail do then?

    1. Because none of them are elected.

      It does not matter whether the governmental powers possessed be deemed “legislative” or “administrative”; if the body possessing them is elected, the one person, one vote principle applies. Hadley, 397 U.S. at 55-56, 90 S.Ct. at 794-95. The one person, one vote principle does not forbid the states to use appointed, as distinguished from elected, bodies to carry out governmental functions, nor does it preclude experiments in new forms of local government. Sailors v. Board of Education, 387 U.S. 105, 110-111, 87 S.Ct. 1549, 1553, 18 L.Ed.2d 650 (1967).

      Cunningham v. Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 751 F.Supp. 885, 888 (W.D. Wash. 1990)

      1. This is why Sound Transit’s board is constitutional as are the boards that govern most transit agencies in this state. Unfortunately some critics aren’t able to see the distinction between the Sound Transit board structure and the old Metro federated board. Then again there haven been any lawsuits against Sound Transit on this basis.

      2. Chris, the NYC Board of Estimate was a federated board of elected officials dissolved for the same reason as Metro:

        Under the charter of the City of Greater New York established in 1898, the Board of Estimate was responsible for budget and land-use decisions for the city. It was composed of eight ex officio members: the Mayor of New York City, the New York City Comptroller and the President of the New York City Council, each of whom was elected citywide and had two votes, and the five Borough presidents, each having one vote.

        The court unanimously declared the New York City Board of Estimate unconstitutional on the grounds that the city’s most populous borough (Brooklyn) had no greater effective representation on the board than the city’s least populous borough (Staten Island), in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause pursuant to the high court’s 1964 “one man, one vote” decision (Reynolds v. Sims).[2] The Board was disestablished.

        Does the ST board allocate votes to its members based on the population of the constituencies they represent?

      3. @Kyle S.

        We’d have to read the opinion to tell whether the case is applicable. Since every single one of the members of the Board of Estimate was an ex officio member by virtue of having been elected to some other office, the board was arguably a directly elected board.

        The ST by contrast has only on ex officio member and she isn’t elected. [I’d thought that the King County Exec was also an ex officio member, but it looks like state law doesn’t require that]. The mere fact that the board consists almost entirely of elected officials doesn’t make it elected.

  5. The monorail board specifications are really awful. They combine the concepts of citizen advisory committees, technical advisory committees and boards into one big body that decides everything. Rather than have one catch-all board, I think it’s best to have review layers built in with advisory committees that have different members. It’s also good for each of those committee agendas to be well-noticed to give the public opportunity to comment.

    The practice of limited advisory committee participation with transit is unfortunately pervasive in the Puget Sound region. The recently-completed ST planning studies are but another example of this – we all pretty much recognized that Renton-Seattle travel was essentially ignored in a series of comments here just a few days ago! Surely if this had been more widely discussed at an advisory committee level, things would have been different.

    How can we promote a better process? I get frustrated often opening this blog to find a post that decisions are made without any sort of vetting through multiple committees.

  6. Since Tacoma LINK sets what I think is a beneficial precedent for Sound Transit to run transit within one city if there’s any direct benefit to regional transit.

    Or, since it’s very likely train operators will be members of ATU Local 587, King County Metro could be the operating agency as well. I’d personally like to see both entities involved, more or less like every blue and white thing in the DSTT.

    At least people with direct experience running- and doing hiring for-public transit would run the project. The exact opposite of monorail proponents’ explicit choice, this time and last.

    Guaranteeing the exact same results, which voters will hopefully prevent by as large a majority as possible. Saving whoever is Mayor from having to contradict a popular election to save Seattle from another expensive and humiliating disaster.

    From some close association with individual engineers during DSTT design phases, I think it’s important to understand an engineer’s most likely take on any political consideration of a project.

    Very much like a professional soldier in a military under civilian control: when asked for an opinion on a course of action, an engineer will ask you two questions:

    1. How long have you got to complete the project?

    2. How much money do you have?

    Followed by the individual engineer’s opinion on the capabilities and considerations of different equipment and approaches. With the understanding that two engineers of equal ability and qualifications will often give different answers.

    But the one thing an engineer will NEVER tell the governing body, or the electorate, what SHOULD be done. To do so is not only uncomfortable for engineers, but often considered a violation of professional ethics.

    For an elected official in charge of a multibillion dollar project, it’s good to have an engineering background, or at least a solid understanding of the effect of two and two being four on every technical consideration.

    Even two or three people with at least some engineering experience on the ST board or the King County council, or both, could seriously improve chances for success. As would turning much of public education over to the technical school sector.

    Which would in turn work wonders in promoting the exact kind of technically informed electorate demanded by meaningful democracy in a world of real life technical decisions and consequences on a very large scale.

    Liberal arts? In our country’s founding centuries, an engineer likely spoke more than one language, and could both calculate and hand-render a project to a perfection that neither AutoCAD. SolidWorks, or CATIA can match.

    For an educational system and philosophy, I’m sure Ben Franklin would agree with me as to where public education should center.

    Mark Dublin

    Another piece of information as valuable to the future as whatever engineering, soils, and seismic studies we can retrieve from last attempt.

    However, a really critical lesson to learn is that when dealing with people, trusting statistics that prove no action is necessary must be treated as skeptically as overblown positive claims.

    Legitimate question about 2005’s anti-monorail literature: where ARE those Kinki Sharyo cars that monorail defeat was supposed to guarantee? So best course of action to legitimately defeat this extremely ill-advised initiative is to promote- honestly- a reasonable west corridor light rail alternative.

    Mark Dublin

    1. What you say is painfully true! So many engineers in Seattle merely design what their client agency project managers want, rather than question whether or not it makes sense. Oddly enough, many agency project managers have their own opinions on what makes sense, and use the engineers are their back room design team. I don’t think even the board members fully understand how their agency project managers manipulate things. The origin of this in Seattle seems to be the expensive engineering challenges that arise with our hills and deep water bodies..

  7. As an active member of one of the chosen organizations, I would be eligible for appointment to the board, and as a known Transit Guy, I might even be successful! I was going to vote NO, but now I’m not so sure… :)

  8. This laundry list of special qualifications reads a lot like one of those job postings required when applying for various visas, or for that matter like the the RCW chapter authorizing Sound Transit. It sounds like they have a board in mind, and want to make sure something close to it gets appointed. As others had said yet another reason to vote no on this ill conceived proposal.

    1. I don’t see how they could not have certain individuals already in mind, given especially the crazy specificity devoted to the UW-affiliated positions.

  9. Interesting board composition. I did not know you could dictate positions to outside organizations like that. What happens if they don’t have any interested or qualified candidates?

    1. What you and I consider to be “qualified” probably doesn’t matter to the proponents of this initiative.

    2. There was an article that several of the listed people and organizations either aren’t interested or oppose the monorail measure (even if they supported the previous monorail project). That’s more of the half-baked nature of the proposal.

  10. What happens when a department at the UW changes its name? Or if the Sierra Club withers as its donor base ages or there’s some scandal, and a new or just different organization comes to the fore?

    I realize that it is impossible to completely future-proof anything, but the specificity of this proposal, besides being bewildering and focused on interests rather than expertise, is almost guarenteed to cause a problem in thirty years.

  11. I’d be cautious about assuming that elected transit Boards will make things better. The San Francisco Bay Area has two of the country’s three elected transit boards–BART and AC Transit. AC Transit operates the bus system in the Oakland/Berkeley/East Bay area (the third elected board is Denver RTD). A lot of people would question whether they are strong policymaking bodies.

    A big problem with the boards as civic bodies is getting the public to pay attention to the board races, especially for the AC Transit board. The BART board has the advantage of being a regional service (at least in concept). It also awards large construction contracts, which draws some interest. The BART Board is a bit of a regional bully pulpit, but the AC Transit board is seen as a backwater for an agency that serves transit-dependent people.The media give it little coverage.

    Bay Area voters have so many candidates and measures to vote on that they often stop voting before they get all the way down the ballot. It’s often hard to define what exactly the political differences are in voting for one candidate versus another. The BART board elections this year are pretty much focused around the candidates’ attitude towards BART’s unions and the strike, during which two workers were killed on the track. There’s no such issue for the AC Transit board, fortunately I suppose.The AC Transit Board has two at large seats, and it’s pretty much impossible to really have discussion across a service district of 1.5 million people and 400+ square miles.

    Each AC Transit ward elected seat represents about 300,000 people. Each BART director represents about 400,000. So it’s not like people are going to feel a close connection to their transit director.

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