Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Sound Transit Would Reject Key Reforms in State Audit

by June 27th, 2013

In a draft status update to be presented this morning at its audit committee meeting, the three-county Seattle region transit agency Sound Transit pointedly rejects a score of key ethics reforms recommended for its Citizens Oversight Panel in a bristling state performance audit released last fall. If the responses are affirmed by the full ST board as is likely, there will be no COP meetings at night so citizens can more easily attend; no outside screening of COP appointees for potential conflicts of interest; no mandated geographic diversity; no restrictions on public advocacy of transit-related measures by COP members; no mandated separate annual fiscal report by the COP; and no use of outside experts by the watchdog panel. There will be some improvements to the COP’s Web page.

Hired by the State of Washington under voter-approved Initiative 900 to conduct a performance audit of the agency and its multi-billion-dollar, multi-decade transit plan for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, the national audit firm TRW in the October 2012 report from the office of then Washington State Auditor Brian Sonntag investigated the ethics and efficacy of Sound Transit’s appointed watchdog the COP and issued recommendations to improve its operations as well as the agency’s broader finances.

An 2009-2023 $18 billion expansion of ST’s light rail, commuter rail and express bus systems approved by voters in 2008 is now more than 30 percent short of projected revenues. Delays and cutbacks loom, though another funding measure will come to voters within the next few years. Meanwhile, ST recently reported that its debt service coverage ratio, or proportion of operating revenues to debt service costs, is projected to fall below its own required minimum of 1.5 to 1.

The performance audit raised red flags about the COP in part because ST awarded contracts to companies with current or former executives on the COP, threatening to diminishing their inclination toward fiscal oversight of the agency. In addition the audit voiced strong concerns because some COP members also served on the boards of advocacy groups which lobbied for state legislation favored by ST, such as a measure sporting high-density “transit-oriented development” which ST believes will boost its future ridership.

The audit also cited COP members for publicly advocating positions on ballot measures related to ST. The audit made a series of recommendations on the COP including stricter screening, a re-focus on ST oversight not boosterism and advocacy, related tightening of the COP ethics policy, and meetings at night not during the day so citizens could attend and observe in person.

But the agency is having none of that advice in the draft response. ST does say although it will not institute outside screening of CP members, the state legislature could mandate that, “subject to state constitutional limitations.” In general, the agency’s replies to the rejected audit recommendations on COP ethics concerns stress that it’s to be expected members may have ties to the public transit business and be civically engaged in related transportation policy debates. COP members basically know how to walk the ethical line and are guided away from any conflicts by existing policies and procedures, ST argues in the draft reply. At its full board meeting scheduled for later today ST is to approve two new members of the COP, a 30-year government manager and a financial services manager.

ST does agree in the reply to the audit recommendations to make the COP’s web page more robust by providing a greater depth and variety of documents there, including meeting minutes and reports, other reports and correspondence. There is no expressed commitment to provide online video of the meetings however, as is the case for other ST committees and the ST board.

Other recommendations in the audit included making explicit the options for revisions to the current ST expansion plan which will likely be necessitated by the 30 percent revenue shortfall. ST says in the draft response it won’t get into specific changes but that responses may need to include more borrowing, shrinking the scale of planned improvements or extending timelines, beyond 2023.

Among several audit recommendations with which it agreed in the response report, ST said it would implement a plan to improve its internal evaluations of outside contractor performance.

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