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Sound Transit will never be accountable to taxpayers until we directly elect its board

Washingtonians have a simple expectation of those who make our laws and spend our money: hear our concerns, respond and be accountable.

For more than a year, drivers in the Puget Sound have been impatient for their calls for accountability to penetrate a fog of institutional arrogance hanging around Sound Transit, the quasi-governmental regional transit authority which has rebuffed those calls to address its extortionate new ST3 motor vehicle excise tax.

Voters have more than one way to seek accountability from Sound Transit. The Legislature has authority over Sound Transit as does its Board of Directors, 17 of whom are elected officials themselves and all of whom were appointed by elected county council people and commissioners.

Unfortunately, last week every spoke on the wheel of public accountability seemingly snapped.

In Olympia, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle had talked openly about the need for a fix, but multiple measures to place reasonable and sensible guardrails on Sound Transit were shot down, one after another. What was able to pass the Senate? SSB 5955, a bill that would give vehicle owners what a legislator referred to as a “meager” amount of MVET relief ($780 million) but would allow Sound Transit to immediately replace the lost revenue by raiding an account set up to support programs for low-income and foster children.

All attempts to graft accountability onto SSB 5955 by amendment were rejected.

Foster children would lose under the Senate’s SSB 5955 “fix,” while Sound Transit, for all intents and purposes, would come away whole. Let that sink in, as well as this crushing irony: The fund Sound Transit would raid was created in 2015 in the legislation that afforded them the right to ask voters for permission to gouge them on their car tabs in the first place.

In Seattle, it was a crisis of absent leadership manifesting around Sound Transit’s Board of Directors and its CEO Peter Rogoff that exposes us once more to the reality that the status quo is not working to impose accountability.

The Sound Transit Board was to meet and address two important questions.

First, the board would address complaints that Rogoff allegedly had engaged in racially insensitive, sexist and belligerent treatment of Sound Transit staff over a period of years. The claims had been investigated; the board had an attorney’s report in hand.

Second, the question of whether Rogoff would receive a raise would be voted on.

What did the board do? They voted to send Rogoff through leadership training and against giving Rogoff a pay bump, but because of cost-of-living increases in his current contract his annual income will still increase to more than $328,000 for 2018. Only two board members, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Rob Johnson, voted against the resolution to allow Rogoff to enter leadership development and stay on the job.

Obviously, it would be absurd to claim that either of these cases meet a minimum standard for public accountability. Indirect accountability for Sound Transit is not working. Our system of government just does not work well when accountability is filtered and misdirected through a maze of appointments and hired executives. And that really is the only thing Sound Transit can’t be blamed for, because the system was set up to scatter and fragment accountability.

The Sound Transit Board chooses the Sound Transit CEO. The Board itself is appointed by county officials who voters are concerned with holding accountable on a broad set of issues including public safety, delivery of social services, growth management, economic development and maybe also public mass transit. But the likelihood that a sole county official – for example, King County Dow Constantine – will ever be the focus of voters’ wrath over Sound Transit excesses is unrealistic. But it would be very easy for the public to express its outrage to a directly elected board in charge of governing the transit agency’s process.

We need a better way to hold the feet of Sound Transit’s leadership to the fire, both for the people’s interest and apparently the well-being of Sound Transit staff. We need to create a process for the direct election of Sound Transit’s board with seats apportioned by population. This is the only way to provide true accountability: imbuing board members with a sobering incentive to exert much-needed control over this wayward, spend-happy agency.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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