Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sock Puppets

Boards of directors are not necessarily purposed to represent specific stakeholders. The problem is, TriMet's board IS designed that way. But it's not working.

TriMet's Board of Directors features (at most) seven people, each representing one district in the TriMet service area. Each board member is highly qualified in the business sense, and some of them (i.e. Dr. Bethel in N. Portland) truly understand the community s/he works in.

However, the problem is that each board member is appointed by the governor. This can work, but hasn't so far, mainly because the people appointed currently, respectable as they may be, are not able to identify with the riders in their districts.

The idea of the republican form of government (used in generic terms, not political parties) is that people are chosen from their represented bodies to bring their issues before those in charge of making decisions. While this is a board of directors and not a senate, the fact that they supposedly "represent" their constituents makes it seem more reasonable that they should be chosen from among their constituents by their constituents. Also, although it is operated more like a corporation (which is advantageous in many ways, the stuff of future blog entries), TriMet is a government agency, which means it should represent its people and have accountability from said people. The current structure does not allow for that.

TriMet Board of Directors District Map,

Here is an example. Tiffany Sweitzer is the board member for District 2, which covers NW Portland and an area of SW Portland north of Mountain Park and east of SW 63rd Ave. (See map here) She is obviously a sharp businesswoman, as she is the president of Hoyt Street Properties, a firm that develops property mainly in the Pearl District. However, she is not a TriMet rider, nor is she as informed about the system as she should be for a board member (she didn't know that the Portland Streetcar was not owned by TriMet until recently). It would be too easy for someone like her to represent the best interests of her company over the best interests of the riders the agency actually serves.

Now, I don't mean to pick on Tiffany. She is not alone, as there is only one board member who actually uses TriMet enough to write home about. But the problem's not just that they aren't necessarily looking into the best interest of the riders. They rarely speak up in meetings.

This is where the term "sock puppets" came from. I don't advocate calling people names, but the purpose of a sock puppet sometimes feels eerily similar to what the board does. Neil presents something, they vote it in. Neil presents something else, they vote it in. Maybe they express some concern. But they still vote it in. I'm sure they really believe it's the right choice of action, but that's because they are picked from the same vine as Neil. That's a good thing to some extent, and there should be people on the board thinking along the lines Neil thinks. But the main point of the board is accountability, as they are the only entity beside the governor who is over the general manager. And without people who think differently than Neil, there is no accountability.

So this is why HB 3316 is important. It seeks to put the power of the board back in the hands of the people, where it belongs. Because this is a public agency. The only way TriMet will truly serve the best interests of the metro area is if something like this is passed.

And seriously, if I have to vote for Soil and Water people on my voting ballot, why can't I vote for the TriMet board, something I actually care about?


  1. "And seriously, if I have to vote for Soil and Water people on my voting ballot, why can't I vote for the TriMet board, something I actually care about?"

    ~~~>Truly a great line !

  2. WOW!!! GOOD NEWS TO ME--HB 3316. This is the first I've heard of this. Much thanks to you and Al M for turning me on to it!

    1. After a little homework, I now remember reading about this in one of Joe Rose's articles. Although I thought at the time HB 3316 didn't go far enough to make TM accountable by direct election, it is a step in the right direction, IMO.

  3. HB3316 is a step in the right direction but it doesn't go far enough.

    There needs to be codified selection criteria, to ensure that appointees are users of the service; to ensure that proper stewardship over taxpayer resources can be achieved; and to ensure that business needs are met.

    Also, it shouldn't be the County executives that are making these selections, but the City executives, or even better, the vote of the people in the various congressional districts (there, I just made that easy). Giving Metro a seat (two?) on the BoD is just asking for more of what we have today - they should have NO say on the BoD.

  4. some guy: I agree with you that HB 3316 doesn't go far enough. I think it is a step in the right direction, as I feel that obviously it should be in the people's hands as to who's on the board of directors. To me it is more of a shock that such a bill actually exists, because generally anything that is that strictly trying to change such a system like TriMet doesn't ever actually appear before the people or Congress. However, I hope that there are further bills and that it helps the people really see where this needs to change and gives people the ability to change it.

  5. Hi Patrick,

    Appreciate you raising these questions. There are certainly pros and cons to elected vs. appointed boards. Some points to consider:

    1. TriMet board is comprised of volunteers. They are not beholden to special interest groups, donors or a particular political agenda. As you know from the politics in Congress, this has been a great concern of American voters. The debate around background checks before the purchase of a gun is a perfect example. More than 90 percent of voters support them, but many members of Congress are beholden to donors and a powerful gun lobby that does not support them, so they are voting against the American people.
    2. The Lane Transit District and TriMet Boards have been appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate since these agencies were created. Both transit districts have historically enjoyed tremendous community and business support for transit. But for this deep recession, both agencies were growing as well. Remember, business is critical to the funding of both transit districts through payroll taxes.
    3.In addition to a volunteer board, TriMet also has in place standing citizen groups that review and oversee the budget, services for Elderly and Disabled riders and now Transit Equity.
    4. Finally, as a part of your analysis dig deeper into transit agencies that have elected boards. How well are they funded? How much support do they have from the region? How equitably do they distribute their service? What were the impacts on their service during this deep recession?


Please keep it clean! Thank you.