A Silicon Valley legislator wants big changes for the region's major transit agency, and not everyone is on board.
Assemblymember Marc Berman held a panel last week to explore ideas for reforming VTA's governance structure. Under the current system, elected officials from Santa Clara County and all its cities are appointed members of the 18-person board.
Berman opposes this system -- last year, he tried and failed to pass a bill that would have shrunk the board and excluded elected members. At the Wednesday, March 23, meeting, Berman argued the current system is the root cause of many of the agency's problems, such as poor fare recovery, high operating costs and deteriorating service.
He expressed interest in reducing the influence of local politicians who sometimes use the agency as a stepping stone to higher office. He said an alternative system -- one where the board was composed of either officials elected directly by the public, or where it has transit experts and advocates as members -- could potentially help the board function better.
"My concern, which has been supported by three Santa Clara County grand jury reports over the last 20 years, is that the current board structure does not set board members up for success," he said. A grand jury report in 2019 raised concerns about inexperienced board members and lack of continuity in leadership. The VTA at one point was called the worst transit system in the country.
Former VTA Chairperson Teresa O'Neil strongly supports reforming the agency's governing structure. She described chairing her first VTA board meeting and discovering several members had been removed by the mayors of local cities who controlled the seats. In one case, she said, a mayor removed a VTA board member so he could take their place on the board because he was running for office.
"I doubt any of the board members have VTA as a first priority," she said. O'Neil added the agency oversees not only light rail and buses, but also highway projects and housing developments. These responsibilities require steady oversight, which she claims the agency has not been able to provide.
"Efforts to stabilize board membership have not been very effective, so the problems are continuing," O'Neil said.
VTA Chairman and San Jose Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said the agency has already spent hundreds of hours reviewing nearly 90 recommendations from a consultant on how to improve board engagement and effectiveness.
"VTA is currently in the process of evaluating and implementing several of our recommendations," he said.
One of VTA's most vocal critics, John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, said he's had to educate many newly appointed board members about how things work at VTA, which can be frustrating at times. He said looking into alternative models for the board's governance structure is overdue.
A recent San Jose Spotlight analysis found just one VTA board member actually consistently rides public transit -- San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez.
"There are some very good people on the board -- we're not trying to throw out the baby with the (bath) water," said Courtney, whose union represents more than 1,500 VTA drivers and operators. "What we're trying to do is find a better path going forward."
Berman did not describe a specific legislative proposal and mostly focused on collecting public feedback.
Ryan Globus, a member of VTA's citizens advisory committee, worries about residents voting for board members given their lack of familiarity with transit issues.
"Insiders, myself included, we love this stuff, we know this stuff," he said. "But I'll often get messages from friends and family members being like, 'I have 15 things on the ballot I have no idea who to vote for."
Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley, who serves as an alternate on the VTA board, said she leans toward direct elections because it would help underrepresented communities in south county select transit leaders who will support them.
"It's not just understanding transportation -- it's making sure the proportionate benefit is fairly distributed," she said.
Jayme Ackemann, a former VTA employee and transit expert, told San Jose Spotlight she supports reforming the agency's governance structure.
"It's just a fact that appointed boards have less engagement from their board members than those with elected members," she said. "My view is that VTA would benefit from a more directly engaged board."
Monica Mallon, transit advocate and San Jose Spotlight columnist, said she feels like the governance reform discussion is a distraction from bigger issues at VTA.
"The No. 1 thing that would make transit better for residents is to get operation funding to run more service," Mallon said. "I really don't think it makes a difference who's on the board."
This story was originally published by San Jose Spotlight here.