State audit finds major issues with Sound Transit's Citizen Oversight Panel
In addition to Sound Transit's flawed ridership projections, one of the other significant findings in the SAO audit of Sound Transit is the lack of effectiveness from the public's only accountability tool, the Citizen Oversight Panel (COP).
The COP is supposed to be an independent group of citizen experts that serve a watchdog role. Instead, they are a group of political appointees chosen by the very group the COP has oversight on, the unelected Sound Transit board of directors. This is the process found by the SAO audit:
Before being appointed, a COP applicant usually is sponsored or nominated by a Board member, typically from the same subarea as the candidate. Before offering this sponsorship, the Board member may speak to Sound Transit’s CEO. If a candidate has been sponsored, the Board typically appoints the candidate to the COP without question.
The SAO also found that Sound Transit does not have any process for screening out potential conflicts of interest. The audit found the following issues:
- A current COP member and a recently retired member served as Sound Transit Board Members in the 1990s.
- One COP member owned or co-owned companies that did more than $15 million in business with Sound Transit from the late 1990s through 2008.
- Seven COP members submitted letters of interest that focused on their belief in the mission of Sound Transit rather than on their interest in fulfilling the role of the COP.
Another disturbing trend found by the SAO is that some COP members actually took positions on public ballot measures that would impact Sound Transit, including the agency's own ST2 ballot measure. The SAO found:
- March 15 2007: One COP member reported she was drafting an opinion piece for an Everett newspaper in response to an editorial on the ST2 package. Another COP member said he had prepared a similar opinion piece for a Seattle newspaper.
- October 4, 2007: One COP member disclosed he was speaking on behalf of the 2007 ST2 campaign although he did not plan to identify his position on the COP.
- October 18, 2007: One member reported he wrote an opinion piece in support of the 2007 ST2 for a local newspaper.
- October 2, 2008: One COP member said he debated a proponent of Initiative 985 on the radio. This initiative would have opened HOV lanes to general purpose traffic during early morning and late evening hours.
- October 16, 2008: One COP member reported he had co-authored an opinion piece for a Seattle newspaper and debated a proponent of Initiative 985 on the radio.
- November 16, 2008: One COP member said he had actively opposed Initiative 985 and was very happy it was defeated.
There are many other examples found in the SAO audit including the fact that the COP did not officially review the ST2 plan before the election. Here are the overall key findings from the SAO on the lack of effectiveness from Sound Transit's COP:
- The Board’s recruitment, selection and orientation processes do not ensure COP members are free of bias, conflicts of interest and clearly committed to the oversight role approved by voters. The processes also do not ensure Sound Transit’s five subareas are equitably represented on the COP.
- As a result of the conditions described in Issue No. 2, and contrary to verbal guidance provided by Sound Transit’s General Counsel, CEO and Board Chair, our audit found the actions of some COP members indicate they prefer a different role. This leads to the COP acting at times as an advisory body, rather than an oversight body.
- A chief example of the effect of some COP members not fully embracing the COP’s role as an oversight body is that it offered no written assurance as to the soundness of the 2008 ST2 financial plan to the public or the Board before the election.
- Along with correcting those factors discussed above, providing the COP with formal authorities, access to outside experts and a sufficient budget would make it a more effective oversight body.
- Sound Transit is one of few transit agencies that have a COP. Given the COP carries out its important role on behalf of citizens, transparency is imperative. However, our audit found transparency to the public regarding the COP’s work, and Sound Transit’s response to it, can be improved.