“For its own good, the MTA must act like a public transit agency, not the CIA”
Watchdog group Reinvent Albany published Open MTA, a comprehensive 170-page report that makes specific recommendations for improving the MTA’s transparency, governance, oversight and ethics. In the report, Reinvent Albany suggests 50 actions the Governor, Legislature, State Comptroller and MTA staff and Board can take to increase public trust and confidence in the frequently criticized state authority. Most of the recommendations center on making the MTA more transparent and accountable to the public and Legislature.
“We welcome the MTA’s newly announced efforts to improve its Freedom of Information Law and Open Data practices. To win back the trust of the public and elected officials the MTA needs to take many steps to improve its transparency and accountability. For its own good, the MTA must start behaving like a public transit agency, not the CIA. Our Open MTA report offers 50 specific ways the MTA and state government can improve the authority’s transparency and accountability and boost public trust,” said John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany.
Reinvent Albany’s Open MTA report was written by Rachael Fauss, the group’s Senior Policy Analyst, who spent more than a year interviewing current and former MTA officials, state legislators, academic experts and advocates, and reviewing MTA and other government records. The report was supported by TransitCenter, a national foundation located in New York City, and was reviewed by numerous experts.
- The Governor Controls the MTA via his authority to hire/fire the CEO/Chair of Board of the MTA, who has complete discretion over MTA staff and sets the agenda and appointments for board committees. The MTA Board has no influence over the day-to-day operations of the MTA.
- The MTA as an institution and riders served by the MTA have suffered from a lengthy failure of political leadership, governance and oversight. This has ranged from prioritizing costly system expansion over state of good repair improvements, like signal modernization, to the deliberate misleading of the public regarding performance metrics and the reasons for delays. Rather than a culture of openness, it has resulted in a culture of obfuscation in which FOIL requests are denied and crucial budget data is not released in open formats.
- The State Legislature and other government oversight bodies have failed MTA riders and abdicated their responsibilities, or been hindered in fulfilling them. The State Legislature, State Comptroller, and Authorities Budget Office have important roles to play in holding the MTA accountable, yet the ABO has been underfunded since its creation. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics must release its outside activity approvals.
The report makes 50 total recommendations in four areas:
- Governance and Budget
- Ethics and Conflicts of Interest
Recommendations from these sections are summarized below.
- The MTA must overhaul its FOIL and Open Data processes, release its public data in open formats and create an OpenFOIL platform modeled off of best practices from Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and New York City Open Records (available for free in open source format). Incident reports – which are two-thirds of records requests – should be offloaded to a separate portal, as done with crash reports at the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
- All tabular data from MTA board books and budget documents must be released in machine-readable, CSV form.
- The MTA should create a contracts database with complete information about projects and vendors.
- The MTA’s capital dashboard and capital project reporting must be improved, with more detailed information posted in a timely manner, and never “rebaselined,” instead always showing original budgets and schedules.
- The MTA needs to better understand itself and its riders. It should conduct and publicly release an updated demographic analysis of riders, publish more detailed data on fare evasion, and release data on its assets, such as from its forthcoming 20-year needs assessment and federal Transit Asset Management (TAM) plan.
- The Capital Program Review Board must meet publicly and no longer violate the Open Meetings Law. Future MTA commissions and workgroups created by statute must also follow the Open Meetings Law.
Governance and Budget
- The MTA Board’s oversight role should be reconsidered to be only for larger projects, planning and contracts, possibly with greater State Comptroller oversight of contracts.
- Policy should not be approved by the Board via contracts, but rather be discussed separately and voted on as major decisions.
- The MTA Board and CEO appointment process should have clear deadlines for action by the Governor and State Senate, with public confirmation hearings.
- The MTA budget calendar should be moved to better align with the state budget.
- MTA Emergency Declaration/Executive Order 168 should not be extended.
- State Legislature – The legislature should create a subcommittee focused solely on the MTA, and hold regular oversight hearings. Confirmation hearings of MTA appointees held by the Senate must be done with advanced notice and thorough vetting, including of financial disclosure forms which are released publicly.
- State Comptroller – The Comptroller’s role in contract oversight could be expanded, pending action to focus the Board’s review, and the office should conduct big-ticket audits. The MTA’s FOIL process should be audited by the Comptroller.
- Authorities Budget Office (ABO) – The ABO should receive a budget increase, conduct a Governance and Operation Report on the MTA, revise its annual procurement reports to require more detailed information, and be given authority to remove board members.
- MTA Inspector General (IG) – The MTA IG should publish all recent reports and activities on its reading room and conduct follow-up audits.
- Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) – JCOPE should revise its outside activity approval process to require publishing of approvals and a vote to approve outside income by authority board members.
- Capital Program Review Board (CPRB) – In addition to abiding by the Open Meetings Law, a website should be created for the CPRB listing its mission, activities, members, meetings calendar, minutes and materials, and contact info.
Ethics and Conflicts of Interest
- The CEO/Chairman should be affirmed as head of agency, whether receiving a salary or not, and therefore subject to all Public Officers Law requirements and MTA internal ethics policies.
- Outside income should be banned for the MTA CEO/Chairman, and state law should be amended to disqualify those with business before the state or local governments in the metro region from being appointed to the MTA Board.
- The MTA should post online financial disclosure forms for all Board members, the CEO/Chairman, and senior management including Agency Presidents, as well as a list of all “prohibited sources” as defined in the MTA ethics code.
- The MTA Ethics policy should be revised to eliminate double standards between management and staff, and the MTA should consider revisions to the “revolving door” or post-employment restrictions for staff.
- The MTA should affirm by Board vote that campaign contributions to the Governor from MTA Board members are banned, and this should be extended to Board members’ businesses and family.
Click here to view the full report.