Friday, July 13, 2012

Choosing VIA Transit Leaders | Casey's Last Word

State Representative Lyle Larson says he plans to introduce a bill next spring that would change the way the board of VIA, greater San Antonio’s mass-transit agency, is chosen.

Instead of having the trustees appointed by a combination of City Council, the County Commissioners Court and a council of suburban towns, we would elect the VIA board.

I have two words to say to Representative Larson: Bexar Met.

Larson noted that folks started talking about electing the VIA board 20 years ago in the midst of a scandal involving sexual misconduct by the VIA board chairman against a female employee.

The Bexar Metropolitan Water District’s elected board was hardly a bulwark against scandal. In the past four years, two of its top executives were indicted, as well as its public relations consultant who was convicted of funneling illegal campaign contributions to board members so as to keep his contract.

What’s more, the elected board presided over a utility that had higher rates and less reliable water than the neighboring San Antonio Water System, or SAWS.

It got so bad that last year, the same Legislature that Larson wants to bring democracy to VIA passed a law allowing Bexar Met customers to vote on whether they wanted SAWS, with its board appointed by City Council, to take over Bexar Met.

The customers voted 3-1 to quit electing their own water board.

Elected boards for special purpose districts are often dysfunctional. Voters know very little about the candidates, who get very little free news coverage for their down-ballot races.

If candidates have any significant money to run a campaign, it most often comes from unions or special interests that do business with the organization.

As a result, elections for these posts draw little interest. Board members are elected by a small percentage of the voters, and a good portion of those who do bother to vote do so with little information.

Representative Larson does raise a fresher concern about VIA that deserves serious consideration.

He cites recent suggestions that the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority, the toll road agency that was recently taken over by the county, should also come under the authority of the VIA board.

“I get uncomfortable when you get this much power in un-elected officials’ hands and they control millions of dollars in transportation,” Larson told the Express-News.

He’s right to be concerned, not just about the amount of power, but also about the potential conflict of interest in combining a toll-road authority with a mass-transit agency.

Some of us remember the uproar when some city leaders proposed selling downtown parking garages and even metered parking to VIA. Citizens worried that the transit agency would hike parking prices so as to encourage ridership.

Similar concerns could be raised by VIA trustees also having control over freeway development and toll roads.

Larson is right. That is too much power for one special-interest agency. But the solution isn’t to put the responsibility for choosing the leadership on an uninformed public.

It is to keep the agencies separate – and hold accountable the higher-profile elected officials whose job includes choosing trustees of those agencies.

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