Corrupt behavior by DC’s Ward 2 councilmember, and former WMATA Board chairman, Jack Evans has again brought a stain to the DC Council and the WMATA Board. One anonymous board member called the board’s handling of the issues a “clown show,” and it was. But it’s not just on ethics that the board seems to be out of touch and tone deaf.
In the wake of the controversial investigation, many board members defended their actions. More broadly, though, most board members are very insulated from riders, even the most active ones. The board tried to abolish the Riders’ Advisory Council and has very limited means for people to contact them which have even frustrated some regional elected officials.
Board members certainly face a lot of scrutiny and seem to feel piled-upon. But as I’ve seen from many discussions with riders and advocates who support Metro’s success, people have an understandable frustration with Metro’s lack of openness and see the board as contributing to the problem rather than trying to help address it.
Why did the committee close its investigation?
A law firm report found that Jack Evans “knowingly” broke ethics rules, yet a committee of half the board’s eight voting members decided to officially close its investigation without any action beyond agreeing Evans wouldn’t run again for chair. The committee didn’t feel it appropriate to release its findings or make any statement.
Very soon after, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam started agitating for the findings to be released. Maryland board member Clarence Crawford quickly released a summary of the findings, and then the Washington Post’s Robert McCartney got a copy of the full report.
I have to wonder if some member of that committee suggested this to one of the governors. Did all of the four men on the committee (Crawford, David Horner of the federal government, DC member Corbett Price, and Virginia’s Paul Smedberg, who’s now been elected board chair) really go home that night thinking, “yep, we really did well by WMATA today”? Or was it when Evans said, Trump-like, that he’d been exonerated by the committee?
This saga led at least one board member to anonymously tell McCartney, “We look like a clown show.” McCartney later called it “clumsy” and “surreal” and wrote, “It is the latest sign that Metro needs improved governance and more transparency and accountability, as critics have been saying for years.”
But Horner defended the committee’s actions, saying it acted “in good faith and earnestly.” Members did suggest future investigations should conclude with a written report. But a lot of their comments seem tone deaf, as were their comments soon after when Evans stepped down from the board and they gave him a plaque.
Evans gets a plaque pic.twitter.com/h9IdBVpNgP— Jordan Pascale (@JWPascale) June 27, 2019
WAMU’s Jordan Pascale reported Smedberg “does not think the board’s reputation is sullied” by the Evans scandal. Many riders feel otherwise. The board needs to look more deeply at both its conduct in this matter and its relationship with the public more generally, because the insularity we saw here is not unique to the Jack Evans’ ethics investigation.
There’s a lot of frustration out there
WMATA has its strident critics, like the not-quite-anonymous “Unsuck DC Metro” account. At times, they embody what can be most harmful about social media, where people compete to craft the most biting snark to earn “likes” without understanding the true context. They have attacked front-line employees who are not making the policies riders don’t like and advocates whose crime is being insufficiently negative toward Metro. The harassment has driven some good people inside and outside WMATA to leave or stop advocating around Metro.
However, they also reflect a real sentiment. Many people, from activists to regular riders, also feel frustrated. They don’t feel listened to and don’t feel they have real routes to engage with the process. I’ve sent feedback myself, about things like broken bus transponders, via the maddeningly complex customer feedback form and seen it disappear into a black hole, too.
It’s true that, due to its business, Metro is going to draw some frustration. People are stuck on these trains which sometimes don’t move, and have time to send angry tweets. Metro can’t tell everyone what’s going on all the time to their satisfaction. It has major resource constraints and can’t jump to fix every broken air conditioner or bus transponder (and if it does, plenty of people will say it should be focusing more on safety!)
But Metro also keeps much more information under wraps. You can find out more about train operations from MetroHero, the app created by knowledgeable transit outsiders on their own time, than from the official systems. The PlanItMetro blog used to provide troves of data about things like station walkability and ridership patterns, but that all stopped in recent years. Unsuck is suing WMATA over a denied PARP request (WMATA’s version of FOIA), and I’ve seen others who are less antagonistic toward WMATA (not that that’s a criterion for a PARP request) similarly stymied by counsel who grasp at the most tenuous of legal interpretations to deny disclosure of information.
In Boston, hobbyist advocates who formed the group TransitMatters have given the MBTA valuable insight and assistance in crafting plans for improving the agency’s services. “T” oversight board chair Joseph Aiello told Erick Trickey for Politico, “They’ve been terrific in asking us to think about things differently. The board and staff listen to them very carefully. We don’t always agree with them, but we frequently adopt their work.” WMATA has not taken the opportunity to do the same with the Washington area’s community of transit supporters and geeks like those in TransitMatters, sadly.
I, and some other professional advocates, have been able to build relationships with WMATA leaders and individual staff members to work constructively, if slowly, toward shared goals. The agency asked me to be on the Executive Steering Committee for the Bus Transformation Project and on an advisory committee for its Blue/Orange/Silver study. The same goes for other advocates like those at the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
I’ve seen that while there is much disease among Metro’s organizational culture, there are also many good people toiling every day to make transit great. They deserve support, even though on an organizational behavior level, the agency is also less collaborative than its peers in local governments. But for people who don’t do this stuff as their job, the Jackson Graham Building, WMATA’s headquarters, feels metaphorically like the concrete fortress it actually is physically.
Some of this is staff, but change can start with the board.
The board doesn’t really hear from you
About half the board members don’t regularly ride Metro rail or bus and drive to board meetings. However they arrive, they enter a bunker-like board room with very rigid procedures that separate them from the public.
If you want to make a public comment, you have to show up before the board meeting begins and sign up. But the meeting might not begin anywhere near on time, so be prepared to wait. Public comment is limited to 20 minutes total, so you might not even get to go, and if you do you speak for at most two minutes, are thanked, and that’s it.
The board has probably already decided on whatever you want to comment about, because the real decisions get made in committee meetings well before the board meeting. But there’s no public comment at committee meetings.
There’s no specific email address for reaching your jurisdiction’s members, only a general address, BoardOfDirectors@wmata.com, which actually goes into the general staff-run customer service tracking system. Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said, “For correspondences directed to a specific Board member, responses are first drafted by staff in the appropriate Metro department. The Board member then has the opportunity for final review and approval as appropriate.”
Ly also said, “Emails sent to email@example.com are shared with all members of the Board of Directors. … Since many correspondences received are related to issues with Metro operations, the Board has delegated the responsibility of responding to the General Manager. Therefore, responses to concerns about Operations will come from Metro staff, typically through Customer Service.”
If we think of the board as a legislature, that’s akin to emailing your member of Congress and getting a reply from the White House communications office. It’s not clear what “shared with all members” means, and Ly hasn’t yet replied to a request for clarification.
Even at-large DC councilmember Robert White felt he got the brush-off when he reached out to the board about Metro Transit Police’s conduct in tasing a black man in June. White says he got a response from Wiedefeld instead of the board, and that the letter was “disappointing and completely unresponsive.” In addition to wanting a better answer, it’s clear White wanted to hear from board members that they were giving this issue some attention at their high level.
Certainly some riders’ emails to the board are merely operational questions best handled by the management staff, but if you email your city or county council member, someone in their office looks at it. Maybe it’s a staffer, but that person’s job is to try to help. Maybe routing the issue to an executive agency is the right solution, but you’ll get an email from a legislative person connecting you to the right person, and often following up as well. WMATA board members don’t have staff to do this and the board secretary (whose name you can’t even get on the website any more) effectively insulates the board.
Now, I’ve analogized the board to a legislature, but it’s not a legislature. It’s set up more like a corporate board, and this kind of insulation is common in those contexts. I think improving governance and building public trust in WMATA requires treating the board more as a legislature overseeing an executive, and that was one of the recommendations from a 2010 Riders’ Advisory Council committee on governance which I chaired.
Some calls for governance reform have included suggestions to bar elected officials entirely. While there have been high-profile unethical actions from some DC councilmembers including Evans and, before him, Jim Graham, one advantage of elected officials is they are accessible like, well, legislators. That’s why the RAC report recommended having elected officials serve, as has worked very well in Virginia. In the absence of that, board members should have expectations, and staff as necessary, to play this role of giving riders a venue for their voices.
The board tried to stop hearing from rider representatives
Board members aren’t being paid (though perhaps that should change), so unlike legislators who have to sit through many-hours-long public meetings, maybe hearing more direct public comment isn’t the best way. They could, therefore, create a special committee of riders to look at issues and advise them. Which they did, in 2005, and it’s called the Riders’ Advisory Council.
Instead, the board almost abolished the RAC in 2018, saving it only after area members of Congress intervened. (It seems to be a pattern that the board repeatedly chooses not to be open until senior elected officials point out their folly.) Some chairs have scarcely engaged with the RAC or not at all. In lieu of abolishing it, the board shrank the RAC’s number, since it had struggled to get applicants, and did commit to regular interactions.
The RAC offers an excellent venue for collecting and channeling rider input, if empowered and constituted correctly. Whether it does so depends on if the board encourages it to form a real independent rider voice or to marginalize it. The board needs to engage with the RAC, and more importantly, support it when it requests information.
The board should also clarify that the RAC does not need the board’s permission to speak publicly. In the past, the RAC was told that it could not have a Twitter account, and some RAC members fretted that, as a board-advising entity, it should not even tell the public about its recommendations. Instead, it should be free to serve as a real rider voice, both collecting information from riders and communicating back to them.
Finally, I’d give RAC members more input into choosing new members and in hiring and reviewing the WMATA staff member who manages the website, takes minutes, and screens applicants.
The board is out of touch
Board members are rightly concerned about whether they come across as a “clown show.” Will new chair Paul Smedberg of Virginia change this?
Smedberg has had his own entanglements with board secrecy. He was an Alexandria city councilmember until he lost his seat in 2018; he believes that one big reason stemmed from his keeping the public in the dark about a new Potomac Yard entrance. Metro had cut the entrance due to cost overruns, but didn’t tell the public; Smedberg’s aide even sent an email giving false information after people started asking questions.
But Smedberg has made some positive moves. He pledged changes to the ethics process and a focus on safety, reliability, and funding, all of which are needed. He could push the board further to become less tone-deaf, to address the root causes that would lead it to act the way it has, and to be less of a “clown show.” Given what he learned from the Potomac Yard episode, he could be just the one to do it.