I have served on many public agency boards and chaired committees and entire commissions. I have also served on several nonprofit boards of directors. As a lawyer, I have advised for-profit and nonprofit boards on corporate governance.
From those experiences, I can say that trust is the most important ingredient in the relationship between an organization or agency’s board and its staff. It’s important for directors to trust but verify, meaning it’s important to have diverse staff sources of information so that no one person or small group of people is controlling the flow of information to the board. A few times I have had to discipline or terminate staff members who lied to a board I have served on. That job is never pleasant, but at times it is necessary because boards cannot properly function, and government decision-makers cannot be held accountable, in the absence of accurate, timely, truthful information.
The recent failure of the San Diego Association of Governments to update its revenue projections before asking voters to increase the sales tax under their purview raises serious questions about the relationship between SANDAG’s board and its staff.
Staff knew their revenue projections for both existing tax revenues and the proposed Measure A were materially incorrect at least four months before the SANDAG board voted to place the proposal on the ballot. Reporting also suggests, though it has not yet been confirmed, that no one on the board was told about this revenue projection shortfall.
If it is true that the staff did not inform the board prior to its vote to place Measure A on the ballot, the failure is unforgiveable. Staff email communications reported by Voice of San Diego make it clear they understood the significant ramifications of the revenue-projection errors: The tax would generate substantially less money than voters were promised for public transportation improvements. Given what staff knew, I would have expected those who chose to withhold this important information from board members to be disciplined and, more appropriately, fired.
If, however, any of the board members were told about the projected revenue, then many questions must be answered to root out this monumental failure in transparency and policy- making and to rehabilitate SANDAG’s credibility with the public. The longer it takes for the truth to come out, the harder it will be for SANDAG to regain the public’s trust. If too much time passes, that goal may become impossible.
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Isn’t it fortunate the public rejected SANDAGs ballot proposition? The problem, of course, is that, since the public knows about the agency’s shenanigans, it’s going to be very hard to get future bonds approved. Heads had better roll if they ever want to get another measure by the taxpayers.
@Bill Bradshaw Or better yet, give taxing authority to other agencies (e.g. MTS, NCTD) so that the money is used for real transit projects and not bartered highway deals between north and south county officials.