Photo by dr.coop on Flickr.

This morning, Peter Benjamin shocked his colleagues on the WMATA Board by announcing his imminent departure. Governor O’Malley will be replacing both of Maryland’s voting members on the board.

His colleague, Elizabeth Hewlett, had previously revealed her intention not to continue serving.

Update: O’Malley has announced former Congressman Mike Barnes as Benjamin’s replacement.

Benjamin said that Governor O’Malley wanted to start with “a clean slate,” which WTOP’s Adam Tuss interpreted to mean “essentially the Governor wants to go in a different direction.”

What is that different direction? There’s not much hint in legislation Governor O’Malley submitted to change the criteria for appointing board members from Maryland. That bill would require regular attendance and transit ridership from WMATA Board members, but also codifies a view of the Board that pushes elected officials out of the process.

That’s a bad step, but Benjamin and Hewlett already weren’t elected officials who did usually attend meetings.

In the debate over WMATA governance, there are two competing views of the role of the Board. The Riders’ Advisory Council and most advocacy groups feel that the Board should include public elected officials who represent their constituents, many of whom are riders, and are responsive to rider needs and concerns.

The Board of Trade instead wants to minimize the role of elected officials and create a Board composed of “experts,” who make transit decisions without “politics.” The danger of this view is that a bunch of experts are likely to make decisions around what’s best for the trains and buses, not the people. “Politics” is just another term for people’s concerns being heard.

Local officials also have greater power to advocate for WMATA funding with their home jurisdictions. Since they also make land use decisions, local officials who also participate in the board can better bring transit issues to local deliberations around planning near transit facilities.

WMATA has to make many technical decisions, but the solution is not to put a bunch of technical people on the Board. Instead, the technical people should work for the agency, and the board leave technical decisions to the CEO while reviewing them for policy implications. Elected officials are the right people to make policy decisions.

Despite Maryland officials insisting they planned to listen to public input before making governance decisions, O’Malley has submitted this legislation which codifies the “let experts run it” worldview.

The legislation would require the following from the governor’s Maryland appointees:

  1. Writes into the law the existing unofficial practice of letting the governor pick the two voting members.
  2. Forbids elected officials from serving on the board.
  3. Forbids people from serving who worked for WMATA within the last year.
  4. Requires members to have experience in transportation and land use planning, transportation or other public sector management, engineering, finance, public safety, homeland security or law.
  5. Requires members to be regular passengers of bus or rail.
  6. Requires members to submit reports twice a year showing their attendance at board meetings.

Items 3, 5, and 6 are fine, and generally good ideas.

Item 5 should also list MetroAccess along with bus and rail. No current board members ride paratransit regularly, but those who do should be just as qualified to be board members. Item 6 should also stipulate that the attendance reports be publicly released, such as by posting online.

Item 1 codifies existing practice, but a practice that shouldn’t be written into law. Formerly, Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties appointed the voting members. Then, the state government took over all the funding responsibility for Metro, and in exchange got those appointments.

But what if a future governor decides not to keep funding Metro? The law doesn’t require that, so why should it require he get to appoint the voting members?

Item 2 moves in the wrong direction. Maryland should have more elected officials, not fewer. Maryland officials who spoke to the RAC said they already believe the Maryland Contitution’s prohibition on elected officials holding “offices of profit” forbids elected officials from serving on the board.

However, elected officials do sit on the Transportation Planning Board, so clearly they can serve on some kinds of boards. The RAC argued in its report for considering the WMATA Board similarly.

Item 4 is wrong-headed. Board members should be chosen for their ability to effectively decide policy issues and represent Maryland, not for specific professional experience. This is so broadly written that it will limit few people, such as allowing anyone with experience in law. But why limit at all?

It’s also not clear what “experience” means. Does riding Metro count as transportation experience? If so, then certainly someone should have some transportation experience. But most likely they mean professional experience. Does serving on the TPB or other boards count?

Montgomery alternate Kathy Porter, for example, seems to be a great member so far. She has a Masters in Public Administration from Harvard’s Kennedy School, but had she not gotten that specific degree but still served as Mayor of Takoma Park and served on other transportation boards, would she be qualified?

Tommy Wells has a JD degree, but before that his professional background was in social work and running social service organizations. If he hadn’t taken a few years to go to law school, would he somehow be unqualified to serve on the board? The general counsel answers detailed legal questions, not board members.

Cathy Hudgins, the current board chair, originally studied math education. Does her subsequent MPA degree really mean the difference between being an unqualified board member and a qualified one?

The Maryland legislature should strip these provisions from the proposed bill entirely.

Meanwhile, none of this explains why O’Malley wanted to replace Benjamin, who would have had no trouble with any of the standards. Observers will be waiting with bated breath to see who O’Malley chooses to replace Benjamin and Hewlett, and what that says about his views on Metro.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Surface Transit. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions here are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.