Regional Government and The Cloak of Invisibility

Magic cloaks that make wearers invisible are not only the stuff of fantasy.  They thrive today in the form of regional government. Even State Senator Mark DeSaulnier, a regionalism proponent, recently acknowledged that regional agencies operate too often as staff-controlled fiefdoms with little visibility or public accountability. Current controversies involving regional the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) and the Contra Costa Clean Water Program illustrate the mischief made by regional agencies operating beyond public scrutiny and accountability.

The pitfalls of regionalism are further illustrated by the proposed Contra Costa Transportation Authority’s (CCTA) employee compensation plan, under committee review this week and scheduled for Board approval on April 18. The proposed plan suggests CCTA is insulated from current fiscal and political realities of California local government and tone deaf to popular calls for reform of public pensions and other benefits.

Small But Powerful

The CCTA is one of those small, obscure but powerful regional planning agencies that are all but invisible to the public. Formed in 1988, CCTA has 11 board members and 19 employees and a $3.6 million annual payroll. Board members are not directly elected, but are appointed by cities and the county. As a result, the public has little knowledge of the agency, seldom attends its meetings, and the press provides minimal coverage of its activities.

Some Contra Costa residents may recall CCTA from its failed November 2010 campaign to pass Measure O, an ill-conceived proposal to raise $8.5 million annually via an annual $10 fee on every car registered in the county. Despite early indications voters would likely reject the measure, the Board authorized over $1 million of taxpayer dollars for election costs.

CCTA’s annual revenues are over $121 million. The agency controls how federal, state and local transportation dollars are spent in Contra Costa. Elected officials aim to stay on good terms with this powerful agency, lest their cities get short shrift when decisions are made regarding distribution of road improvement monies.

As is typical of regional superagencies, CCTA is inherently and intensely political because it controls big bucks and calls the shots in divvying up funds from the collective federal and state transportation money pot.

Time Warp

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that CCTA’s employee pay plan looks like something from the happy-go-lucky mid-1990’s, when state and local governments were making pension and retiree health promises galore (albeit promises that were known could not be kept). CCTA’s pay plan stands in stark contrast with those of Contra Costa cities that have been working hard to rein in pension and other labor costs. Reading CCTA’s pay plan is like being in a time warp, with provisions that include:

  • A 4.4% cost-of-living adjustment to ensure CCTA “continues to be an ‘employer of choice’ of the region and in step with inflation and market conditions”
  • CalPERS “2% @55” formula benefits, with no employee contribution (and an employer cost of 20¢ for every $1 of payroll)
  • Employer-paid health insurance of about $18,000 annually (employer pays up to 95% of Kaiser Permanente premium cost)
  • $3600 in lieu payment if employee declines health insurance
  • Employer-paid retiree lifetime medical insurance for employee and dependents, for employees age 50+ and with 5+ years of service (this program currently covers  5 retirees and has unfunded liabilities of over $900,000)
  • Employer-paid dental, disability and life insurance coverage

Before voting to authorize this package, CCTA Board members would be well-advised to ask constituents the last time they got a 4.4% cost-of-living pay adjustment, let alone a comparable benefits package.

Exclusive Focus on Bringing Home the Bacon

The primary role of CCTA Board members is to represent their home agencies by bringing home the bacon. After all, it’s challenge enough to politic and advocate for the transportation funding needs of one’s own city. Who has time to notice that CCTA employees contribute nothing towards their pensions, contribute little or pittance towards health insurance and can qualify to receive retiree health benefits after only five years of service?

In most local agencies public input creates momentum for change. Conversely, in regional bodies change — such as reform of pension and other benefits programs — does not readily occur. Absent public accountability that drives impetus for change, regional bodies become routinized, operating within isolated bubbles.

CCTA Board members concern themselves with labor matters in their home cities, but less so for regional superagencies that fly under the public radar.

The Cloak of Invisibility

Regional superagencies like CCTA lack the visibility and citizen participation requisite for vitally-important public accountability. Most residents don’t know that CCTA exists, let alone what it does. This cloak of invisibility results in too little public scrutiny of decisions. The 2010 Measure O $1.15 million debacle illustrates the negative results of echo-chamber decisionmaking, in which a Board doesn’t sufficiently challenge ideas or past practice – or receive adequate public input.

Without accountability and public scrutiny, even the most conscientious public officials can become insular, out-of-touch with the public, inordinately dependent on staff and consultants and unduly influenced by special interests.   “Collective responsibility” translates into Board members feeling little or no personal accountability for organizational performance, which perpetuates the status quo.

When decisions are made quietly, without scrutiny or meaningful accountability, human nature reliably kicks in to ensure satisfaction of immediate desires and avoidance of unpleasantness for as long as possible. The trouble is, even magic cloaks cannot foil the mischief generated by human nature when left to its own devices.

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