Ideas for Improving Capital Metro Oversight

This long-brewing dissatisfaction is probably what inspired Austin’s State Senator Kirk Watson to sponsor a bill that changes the criteria for appointment to the Cap Metro board. The bill was passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor.  Among other modifications, the bill changes who gets appointed. Here are the details:

  • CAMPO now appoints one elected official, one member with 10 years of financial or accounting experience, and one member with 10 years of executive-level experience.  Also, in the event that the most recent decennial census demonstrates that more than 35% of the population Cap Metro covers lives outside of Austin, then CAMPO gets to make two additional appointments.  Presently, CAMPO selected two members representing the general public.
  • Austin City Council appoints two individuals, one of whom must be an elected official. Before, both appointments had to be elected.
  • Travis County Commissioners still get one appointment.
  • Williamson County still gets one appointment but it is not selected by a panel of county mayors.
  • One elected official appointment by a panel of all of the CapMetro mayors, except for Austin’s mayor.

The Statesman’s transportation reporter Ben Wear tackles the changes and sounds unconvinced and unenthusiastic about their potential to improve oversight.  I agree with his lack of enthusiasm.

While it is likely that the new membership will add additional expertise, it seems unlikely that said expertise will be enough to improve accountability.  Even if the new Board is better at asking questions and deflecting management obfuscation during meetings, they don’t have the capacity to sustain that oversight day after day.  Moreover, because they don’t campaign specifically for this role, they never get to develop an actual constituency that can provide electoral rewards to those officials (like Mike Martinez) who aggressively push accountability.  In a world of scarce time, it is rational for politicians to invest their time in areas that will most help them get re-elected or fulfill other aspirations.

Instead, advocates for greater Cap Metro oversight should push in two new directions.

First, the Board of Directors needs to have their own independent staff.  A close examination of the CapMetro FY 2009 budget reveals that the sole BoD staffer got rolled into the administration’s legal division.  Bad move. If the Board is to have the ability to push its own agenda and have oversight then it needs its own professional staff.  Cap Metro has a total staff of 1,225.8 FTEs (of which 524 are bus operators.) Surely it can find a way to allocate 3 position to the Board just through natural employee attrition.

Some will complain that the Board isn’t worthy of any resources or that any freed up resources should be allocated to direct services.  However, given Cap Metro’s operating budget of $182 million, the potential return on allocating 3 FTEs to help the Board urge accountability and waste seems more than justified.  Just a 1/2 of 1% of the budget being recovered from unnecessary waste annually would be about $900,000 in avoided waste.  A volunteer board without proper staffing can’t really do that.  Decent quality staff can help make it a reality.

Second, Cap Metro’s directors should invest in boosting the civil society organizations that can keep it accountable.  Allocating a small amount of funds to support and engage established and emerging constituency groups – such as the Bus Riders Union of Austin – is critical to creating a vibrant constituency for accountability.  Instead of following the problematic War on Poverty model of directly funding organizing, it can take a route that is less entagled and more transparent.  It can offer prizes to groups or individuals that present plans that solve specific problems ala Netflix’s recommendation engine prize.  It can have an open and competitive application process for the Board’s advisory committees (such as the Customer Service Advisory Committee).  It could create regional or service line stewards (who get tiny stipends) selected through participation of neighborhoods or bus riders.

The point is that oversight is not just about getting smarter people in meetings.  It’s about the blocking and tackling in between.  And for that the Board needs bodies.  Both professional staff and an organized citizenry.

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