Pretty much everyone seems to agree that the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority desperately needs a leadership fix — but where to start?
For one glimpse of the problem, take a look at the results of a recent public survey on the performance of the transit agency's 12-member board of directors. About 70% of respondents gave the VTA board low marks, particularly for being ineffective and clumsy at communication. Other withering feedback came from a recent civil grand jury report, which primarily blamed poor board leadership for causing VTA to become one of the most inefficient and dysfunctional transit agencies in the U.S.
VTA directors are now facing an immense challenge to prove they are steering the organization back on the right track, especially as voters are expected to decide in November on another transit tax. In the meantime, the transit agency's directors have taken some of the criticisms to heart, and they are pledging to get better.
On that matter, the VTA directors recently commissioned an independent review to evaluate ways to improve the transit agency's governance. The independent report, conducted by the consulting firm RSM, indicated that VTA's complex problems require some complex solutions — the review analyzed nearly 30 separate ideas to facilitate VTA's governance. This included simple fixes, such as better scheduling practices to ensure fewer missed board meetings, and also some more tricky proposals like reconfiguring the entrenched political system for appointing VTA directors.
Mountain View Councilman John McAlister, who serves on the VTA board and chairs the committee overseeing this report, said he agreed with pretty much everything.
"VTA has a lot of work to get done," he said. "There's just this sense that the people who are getting appointed aren't the best, and if you don't have good people, then you don't get good results."
Previously, it has been nearly impossible to get board members to reflect on their own effectiveness. In 2016, transit agency staff sent out a survey questionnaire to board members, but only two members reportedly took the time to fill it out. A similar self-assessment survey sent out earlier this year reportedly received feedback from about half the members.
One key problem is the lack of engagement on the VTA board, which consists entirely of political appointees serving on city councils or the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors. Often, board members face a steep learning curve, and it doesn't help that they usually lack any experience in transportation, finance or management.
Many appointees also have a hard time separating their responsibility for improving countywide transportation from the local priorities of their political base. In particular, the San Jose City Council, which controls five seats on the VTA board, has been accused of hogging funding to prop up light rail and BART transit.
Many VTA members admit they're overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, making it impossible for them to read every staff report or attend every meeting. Some board members have extremely poor attendance — in some cases, members have skipped every meeting of committees they sit on. Supervisor Dave Cortese has attended barely more than 1 out of 4 board meetings since joining the VTA board in 2008, according to the agency's published statistics, which includes time when he served as an alternate board member.
The independent review found there are several relatively easy fixes that VTA could implement. In particular, the board's 17 active committees could be consolidated, streamlined or eliminated to save time. Standing committees, which oversee responsibilities like capital projects or congestion management, should be given more authority to approve expenditures without bringing everything to the full board, the report recommended. Similarly, board members should face some minimum requirement for attendance, and consultants recommended each member should get an annual "scorecard" that grades their performance for things like participation, leadership and relevant knowledge.
Other needed board improvements would likely take more work. The consultant report pointed out VTA members needed to draft an updated master strategic plan, and use that to guide their future decision-making.
Most difficult of all, the independent report urged the VTA board to consider taking its process for appointing directors back to the drawing board. Prospective board members should be first vetted for their qualifications and commitments to ensure they can fulfill their duties before being nominated for the job, the report said.
The recommendations will be taken up by the full VTA board of directors at a future meeting.