Who should oversee TriMet?

Riders departing a MAX train in downtown Portland, May 6, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)
Riders departing a MAX train in downtown Portland, May 6, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — As riders protested in June 2012, TriMet’s Board of Directors approved raising fares and cutting services to help balance their budget.

At the same time, they did something else without public input. They approved more than $900,000 in raises for at least 70 TriMet executives, managers and other non-union employees already making six-figure salaries. Some of the raises were substantial.

Records obtained by KOIN 6 News show:

  • TriMet’s director of legal service received a 51% raise
  • A deputy general counsel received a 33% raise
  • A civil construction manager received a 22% raise

The raises were funded from TriMet’s $20 million contingency — rainy day — fund. TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane pushed for the raises, and took criticism the money came from a slush fund.

TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane in May 2013 (KOIN 6 News)
TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane in May 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

“I’ve admitted and I’ve apologized for the way that was rolled out,” he told KOIN 6 News.

Chris Smith, who writes a blog called Portland Transport, sits on the board of directors for the Portland streetcar.

“My big beef was [TriMet wasn’t] transparent about it,” Smith said. “That should have been fully visible to the public. It shouldn’t have been something somebody figured out reading the footnotes six months later.”

TriMet said they are now trying to be better about transparency. They might begin by following examples of other transit agencies around the country.

TriMet is one of the only major transit systems in the country without a permanent citizens oversight or advisory committee.

“Actually,” McFarlane said, “we do have a General Manager’s Budget Task Force that has a number of citizens that actually meets starting in the fall.”

He admitted he appointed that task force after conferring with the board, but deflects criticism that it’s not transparent enough since he appointed them.

“If you knew the individuals, you would know that they are very independent-minded.”

Though he appoints citizens to serve on a few specific committees, there is no permanent independent citizen advisory committee watching over TriMet.

After a TriMet bus driver hit five people in a crosswalk in April 2010, killing two, TriMet formed a task force to investigate. Among their recommendations:

“TriMet should consider a community advisory committee that would allow TriMet’s customers and partner stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in as TriMet makes decisions.”

The agency did form a safety education committee, but there is still no permanent citizens advisory group.

“The roles you described are the roles of the Board of Directors at TriMet,” McFarlane said, “that are appointed by the governor, confirmed by the state senate.”

Many people feel that’s the problem.

“I serve on a number of boards and I think the role of a board member is to ask tough questions of management,” Chris Smith said. “I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, but in board meetings I see one or two people who do that occasionally. I don’t see as much of it as I think we should have.”

Oregon’s governor appoints seven volunteer members to serve on the TriMet board, and they meet twice a month. Many feel the public is left out of the process.

John Ostar of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon in May 2013 (KOIN 6 News)
John Ostar of OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon in May 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

“When we first started going to TriMet board meetings, you couldn’t testify,” said John Ostar of OPAL, a group that advocates for TriMet riders. “The public couldn’t testify on a particular resolution till after the board had already voted. We got them to change that policy.”

Right now, only one of seven TriMet board members are regular transit riders. “We need to change that,” he said. “We need our TriMet board members to be much more accountable to the people.”

In Salem, Oregon Rep. Chris Gorsek sponsored a bill to have the TriMet board be appointed at a local level rather than by the governor.

“When you consider the huge impact TriMet has on people’s lives and the millions of dollars that go into the operation, it seems to me they should be a little closer to the voters,” Gorsek told KOIN 6 News. “The voters should have a little more say in how the board functions.”

Last week, the bill had its first hearing and among those testifying against it was Neil McFarlane.

“Despite what you may have heard, TriMet is still one of the nation’s premiere transit agencies,” he said.

For TriMet to maintain its reputation, it must bring the mounting cost of its employee union health care under control, McFarlane said.

“Changing the appointment of the board isn’t going to make money magically appear.”

But Chris Smith said, “There’s really a question about credibility. We have TriMet making a number of assertions about the budget and how labor costs drive that. We have the union making contradicting assertions. I think it’s tough for citizens to know who to believe.”

“I would sort of ask the question,” McFarlane said, “what is broken with TriMet?”

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