Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Should DC's representatives to the WMATA Board be popularly elected?

One of the ways to build democracy is the city is to have more elected offices.  This would be in supportive of the city's desire for statehood, a quest for which I am less enamored of lately, as I think that rights also trigger responsibilities.

Be that as it may, DC Government appoints two voting and two alternate representatives to the board of directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metrorail and Metrobus.  DC is a major funder of WMATA, along with transit fares, and appropriations from Maryland, Virginia, and the Federal Government.

The appointees are made by the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch.  Generally, it seems that the appointees are more focused on how they can move very parochial DC issues forward, and less focused on broader transit issues.

When serving on extraordinary boards like WMATA or the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, DC Councilmembers are supposed to be acting in the best interests of all residents of the District of Columbia, rather than in their unofficial roles as "bosses of their wards."

I've argued that the WMATA Board should be popularly elected.  This creates problems since the representatives wouldn't necessarily have the right relationships with the government bodies like DC, Maryland, and Virginia localities (plus the Federal Government) providing non-farebox funding.

But at least as far as representatives of DC Government are concerned, I would rather the representatives to the WMATA Board from DC be popularly elected rather than being sitting Councilmembers or appointees by the Executive Branch.

The representatives should be ex-officio members of the DC Council Committee that oversees transportation issues.  If the city ever creates a Transportation Commission ("Electing a charter commission") they could sit on that committee too.  And there should be regular meetings with the Executive Branch officials (the transportation department is under the purview of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development) with those officials.

Some examples of DC elected officials sitting on the WMATA board and not acting in the best interest of the transit authority

1.  For example, under the Williams and Fenty Administrations, one of the primary goals of the Executive Branch appointee was advocating for moving the WMATA headquarters to property abutting the Anacostia Metro Station, as an economic development initiative for that area.  See "D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty says moving Metro top priority" from the Washington Business Journal and "Williams Proposes Moving Metro Offices to Anacostia" from the Washington Post.

 2.  I am still astounded that a DC judge ruled ("Judge Dismisses Lawsuit Against Jim Graham," City Paper) that Councilmember Jim Graham was acting within his responsibilities as a "WMATA Board Member" when he attempted to interfere (I think it's called "tortious interference" but I am not a lawyer) with agreements between WMATA and developers involving parcels in his Ward 1 political district.   From the WCP article:
After a WMATA investigation found that Graham broke the authority's conduct rules, the actions earned Graham a reprimand from the D.C. Council and the loss of his oversight of city alcohol regulations. Last year, Banneker sued Graham, Metro, and LaKritz Adler for $100 million for allegedly interfering with its development deal.

After today's opinion, though, the construction firm won't be collecting anything. In her opinion, U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer writes that Graham's action while on the Metro board fall under sovereign immunity protections, meaning he can't be sued in his personal capacity for actions he took while he was on the board.

"It is important that WMATA officials be free to make complex decisions regarding large real estate projects, which are often controversial, without fear of suit," Collyer writes.

Even if Graham did behave inappropriately, Collyer writes that there were other remedies outside of Banneker's lawsuit to be used against him, including the Council reprimand and the possibility of Graham losing his next election.
Those might be remedies that satisfy "the public," but they do not compensate the firm that whose business was impacted by the tampering.

Earlier, an investigation on behalf of WMATA stated that CM Graham was not acting in the interests of WMATA as it related to the matter ("Metro Report Finds Wrongdoing by DC Council Member Jim Graham," NBC4; "Cadwalader Investigation Finds DC Council Member Graham Violated Metro Conduct Standards," press release).  From the press release:
The final report found that former Metro Board Member Jim Graham violated WMATA's Standards of Conduct by attempting to barter a Metro real estate development project with another matter before the District of Columbia Council.
3.  This comes up currently with another DC specific matter and another DC Councilmember.  It appears that Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser, also running for Mayor, is doing what she can--directly or indirectly, like missing meetings--to postpone a vote by the WMATA Board to proceed with a development agreement for an apartment building on the parking lot at the Takoma Metro Station ("EYA development at Takoma metro moving forward," Elevation DC blog). 

Some residents, organized as DC-MD Neighbors for Takoma Transit, including ANC Commissioners and a City of Takoma Park Councilmember, are asking for extraordinary involvement by WMATA in defining the particulars of the project, which normally would be addressed by local zoning and permitting processes.

It's not likely the Board would approve adding extraordinary requirements to the contract and I don't think CM Bowser wants to be in a position of voting in favor of the development (even though she likely is supportive), and this being made an issue, both within the ward and city-wide, before the Mayoral primary in April.

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