As reported by Mike Lindblom over the weekend ($), State Senator Steve O’Ban (R – University Place) has signaled his intent to file a bill in the upcoming legislative session requiring the direct election of Sound Transit Boardmembers. Just two weeks after an election in which voters explicitly affirmed Sound Transit 3, O’Ban’s contention is that Sound Transit “does not answer to the voters,” and that after ST3’s passage, “It is more important than ever for the people to have a say in the agency’s management.”
We’ve been here before. O’Ban also proposed this last January, Federal Way legislators floated the idea in 2012, and Governor Locke suggested it in 2003 during in the dark days of Sound Transit. Given that 14 of the 18 members are appointed rather than required by statute, there has been a consistent perception of Sound Transit as an agency of secondary governance, one step removed from direct voter accountability.
O’Ban’s bill would create 19 separate districts within the Sound Transit tax boundary, with direct nonpartisan elections every 2 years for staggered 4-year terms. Anyone could run for the seats, irrespective of transportation industry knowledge or competence, and they would be prohibited from holding other political office. For the sake of two public meetings per month (committee and whole), a prospective board member would need to staff and fund both a primary and general election campaign. While current board members have significant staff support as an in-kind extension of their other political office, O’Ban would cap compensation at $10,000 and presumably have no staff budget at all, leaving board members alone to educate themselves.
Sound Transit projects are built within an incredibly complex web of jurisdictional authority: cities, counties, the state, the feds, and metropolitan planning organizations such as PSRC. Each of these jurisdictions has incredible power (through zoning and permitting) to create friction for the agency. With direct election of boardmembers, these jurisdictions would retain this power while no longer maintaining a direct connection to the board. It makes far more sense for the board to act as an extension of those jurisdictions’ desires rather than as a separate wild card.
Just 2 years after embarking on a 25-year, $54B capital program and 5 years before completing ST2, O’Ban would replace the entire board wholesale and erase the board’s accumulated knowledge, experience, and relationships. Obviously, no board member would resign their other elected office simply to run for the board, so the outcome would surely be the elevation of political neophytes.
Selection by appointment doesn’t necessarily mean that the ST Board is corrupt or unaccountable. ST’s enabling legislation (RCW 81.112.040) requires the appointment of each County Executive and the WSDOT Secretary, and these positions are already accountable through our highest profile local races (County Executives and Governor). Though these 4 required members have the authority to appoint the remaining 14 seats, there are a number of additional requirements, including representation from the largest city in each county, proportional subarea representation, and at least 50% of the board serving on another transit agency governing authority (such as the King County Council or the Pierce Transit Board of Commissioners).
As Martin has argued repeatedly since 2012, “direct election to esoteric board positions fundamentally erodes accountability”, subjecting transit planning to wild swings in public opinion, the potential for opportunistic sabotage, and the risk of district-packing through gerrymandering. Do we find greater transparency and less politics in the directly-elected King County Council, or the Port of Seattle? Of course not. If anything, direct election has led Metro’s planning to be relatively more volatile, much more subject to last-minute Councilmember whim.
Though every ST Boardmember is already directly elected for another office, secondary appointment admittedly shields Sound Transit and provides policy-level continuity. Whether you believe this is a feature or a bug generally depends on your assessment of the agency’s current priorities. If you believe ST is headed in the wrong direction, you may find this argument from inertia less than comforting. If you generally support their current direction, you are likely to recognize that project management benefits from stable, long-term, multi-jurisdictional thinking.
Just as we would never vote for Secretary of Defense, our political system has generally held that for highly technical agencies, appointment is superior to direct election in terms of placing competent individuals. The system is far from perfect, but it is likely that direct election would create two problems for every one it would solve. Every boardmember already has to answer to the public in their own jurisdiction, and they deserve to have transportation planning as an extension of their general mandate. Adding lots of names to our already crowded down-ballot races wouldn’t make things more accountable, it would just make them more volatile.