The group of local politicians in charge of Caltrain unanimously approves every item that comes before it, seldom debating or asking questions even as the rail line faces a historic financial crisis that soon could lead those same leaders to shutter half its stations.
For an astonishing three years, the Caltrain board has nodded along in unity to approve 200 straight items, including key decisions to cut service, raise fares, increase salaries and change policy, according to a Mercury News review of meeting records. Board members typically were silent before most of the votes, which all were based on recommendations from SamTrans executives who manage the rail line's day-to-day operations.
Their final vote count since the last disagreement: 1,591 yes, 0 no.
Nine politicians — supervisors, mayors and others from San Francisco to San Jose — are by law charged with setting policy for the 77-mile rail line and approving all spending for the $100 million-a-year public agency during their monthly meetings.
"It's not a complex organization, it's getting the train from point A to point B," said longtime board member Ken Yeager, a Santa Clara County supervisor. "It isn't like there's a lot of moving parts and complex issues that need to be debated."
However, the agency's 40,000 daily riders between San Francisco and Gilroy might disagree: They face the loss of half their stations and service by July so the agency can wipe out a record $30 million budget deficit. Critics, like Doug Heller, wonder whether the board is simply there to "add more ink to the rubber stamp."
"There's something wrong when you have total agreement for three years, only to wind up in a financial disaster," Heller, executive director of Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog, said after being informed of the votes. "It indicates that no one's really paying attention."
Glossed over decisions?
The newspaper's review of meeting records since 2008 found:
In 62 hours of meeting time, the board never voted on an item generated by a board member; rather, SamTrans staff members who spend part of their time managing Caltrain devised all the plans.
The board cut service in October 2008 and increased fares in July 2009 — each time without asking a question or making a single comment directly before voting, even though thousands of riders had written with concerns.
Board members passed more than half the 200 items without publicly questioning or commenting on them before voting, and only about a half-dozen times did a vote directly follow a lively discussion.
The board approved three annual budgets totaling $288 million in tax and rider revenues. On average each year, just one-third of the members in attendance asked a question or commented on the spending plans before approving them.
Caltrain board members
* Omar Ahmad, San Carlos mayor
* Jose Cisneros, San Francisco treasurer
* Sean Elsbernd, San Francisco supervisor
* Nathaniel P. Ford, executive director and CEO, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency
* Ash Kalra, San Jose councilman
* Liz Kniss, Santa Clara County supervisor
* Arthur Lloyd, retired Amtrak executive
* Adrienne Tissier, San Mateo County supervisor
* Ken Yeager, Santa Clara County supervisor
Since 2007, board member Nat Ford, also chief of San Francisco Muni, has missed nearly half the meetings.
Only once did each board member speak before a vote: In December 2009, when they showered an outgoing board member with compliments before approving a plaque for him.
Objection in 2008
Perhaps most telling was the February 2009 meeting, when the board had to decide whether to give a one-year contract extension to Amtrak — which provides the agency's engineers, conductors and other rank-and-file employees — or find another operator. It was a crucial decision, since the contract makes up 60 percent of the Caltrain budget. But the meeting was running late, into lunchtime.
"Unless there's a question I'd like to move that we adopt the resolution," board member Jim Hartnett said at the time, interrupting a staff member who was preparing to explain the contract. After laughs from fellow board members, the contract was approved — 30 seconds after it was introduced.
Ultimately the contract would fall in the middle of a three-year period in which Caltrain would pay Amtrak an additional $6 million because of wage hikes Amtrak gave its employees. The prior year, the board members approved the Amtrak contract after two minutes, also without asking whether there was a better deal out there.
"I would hope that an oversight board like that would ask some tougher questions of Caltrain," said John Murphy, 43, who rides Caltrain from his home in San Francisco to Sunnyvale for work and has attended several board meetings. "It seems in many cases that a lot of the members are pretty disassociated with what's going on. Sometimes it feels like they're asleep at the meetings."
It's unclear how far back the streak of supporting staff plans goes. The last objection came in February 2008, when board member Jose Cisneros, the San Francisco treasurer, cast a sole vote opposing the staff's plan to pull some of Caltrain's investments from the San Mateo County treasurer.
The big question: Could the Caltrain disaster have been averted with the type of oversight seen at transit agencies that aren't suffering as badly, such as BART and the Valley Transportation Authority, where board members commonly propose initiatives and stage raucous debates?
All the ideas to save Caltrain have come from the VTA and Metropolitan Transportation Commission, an effort that could bail out the rail line and save service until 2012. Even riders recently came up with an idea that could save weekend service: faster weekend trains that have increased ridership and, thus, revenue.
Defending their roles
In interviews, board members deflected criticism that they were not taking their roles seriously enough. They said the focus should not be on them but instead on rounding up public support for a new tax or other source of steady funding — the lack of which, they say, is the biggest reason the agency is struggling. Yet despite years of problems, they haven't moved to put a tax measure on the ballot.
The board members, whom Caltrain pays $100 per meeting, also said the SamTrans staff has been so thorough that when items come before the board, there simply is not much left for them to do.
"I do in a lot of ways respect the staff work that is done and the presentations we receive," said Ford, who sometimes shows the Caltrain staff work to his own San Francisco Muni employees as a sort of training. "I know what's going on with Caltrain just as much as I know what's going on with my own agency."
The board members and staff executives appear to have a congenial relationship, sometimes joking during meetings and rarely, if ever, grilling one another publicly. What's more, Caltrain CEO Mike Scanlon donated $900 to Jerry Hill's 2008 campaign for state Assembly while he was on the board, a few years after Scanlon had contributed $1,500 to former board member Mike Nevin — who hired Scanlon — for Nevin's failed run for state Senate.
The board members hinted that they do more work behind the scenes. Ford said he has held teleconferences with other board members a few times, for instance.
"I think there is a lot of discussion that happens offline," Yeager said. "By the time there's a vote before the board, a lot of these things have just been resolved."
But the state has passed laws designed specifically to ensure that all government business is conducted in public and not in secrecy.
"The process of governing is happening out of sight and out of mind," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition. "Obviously something's wrong."
Board members insisted they have not violated any aspects of the state's public meeting laws.
Still, they acknowledged they need to interject themselves more in a time of crisis and vowed to stay active in helping Caltrain through its struggles.
As new board members, San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier said she will be grilling Caltrain officials at every turn, while Santa Clara County Supervisor Liz Kniss said she hopes to emulate VTA board meetings, where she and other board members "go at it" all the time.
"I wouldn't have gone on the (Caltrain) board if I hadn't thought I could make some kind of changes," Kniss said. Had she been on the board earlier, "at some point I would have been alarmed at several fiscal emergencies."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705 or [email protected]