.SMART agrees to expand role of community oversight group

Following years of criticism for a lack of transparency, the North Bay’s public rail agency has agreed to expand the powers of a volunteer oversight board.

In a June report, the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury recommended the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) clarify the role of the agency’s Community Oversight Committee (COC), in an effort to improve public trust in SMART’s decision-making process.

North Bay voters rejected a measure in a March 2020 election to extend a sales tax supporting SMART from 2029 to 2059. The campaign against the measure fed on the public’s “lack of confidence in the SMART operation which was itself attributed to a lack of transparency and communication,” the grand jury report states.

The report largely focused on the role of the COC, a group formed in 2008 with the passage of Measure Q, a sales tax funding SMART. 

Throughout its operation, the COC’s role remained unclear to the public and its own members. The group did not have by-laws, met irregularly—according to SMART’s website, it took a 14-month break between Oct. 15, 2020 and Feb. 10, 2022—and did not define how long members could hold a seat, allowing at least two members to serve since the COC’s formation 14 years ago.

The COC’s chair, Russell Colombo, spoke about the Grand Jury’s report at a July 20 SMART board meeting.

“[It] would be very good to really define in greater detail the role of the COC because, frankly speaking, among the COC, there was a difference in opinion about what we really were to do,” Colombo said. He and other board members who spoke at the meeting believed that the COC’s role was limited to reviewing SMART’s five-year strategic plans and periodic financial and operational updates. Other COC members thought the group should offer the board and staff advice on a broader range of subjects.

SMART board members endorsed the idea of expanding the COC’s role, though some were frustrated that SMART was being criticized for something they said the COC was never required to do.

“I think it’s time to make the changes that we need to make. Being prodded by the Grand Jury is not a bad thing,” SMART board chair David Rabbitt said. 

SMART board members endorsed the idea of expanding the COC’s role, though some were frustrated that SMART was being criticized for something they said the COC was never required to do.

“I think it’s time to make the changes that we need to make. Being prodded by the Grand Jury is not a bad thing, SMART board chair David Rabbitt said.

At its Aug. 17 meeting, the board agreed to implement 10 of 11 Grand Jury recommendations. Among other thing, SMART will expand the COC’s input and review role beyond the “minimal requirements” defined in the 2008 bond measure, create by-laws for the COC and specify how long COC members can serve.

The agreement to increase the COC’s role comes following a series of listening sessions hosted by SMART earlier this year under the leadership of the agency’s new general manager, Eddy Cumins. Last year, Cumins was named as the replacement for long-time director Farhad Mansorian, who was often criticized by members of the public for fostering the agency’s reputation for opacity.

The Sonoma County Grand Jury’s 2021-2022 reports and agencies’ responses are available here.

Will Carruthershttp://www.wrcarruthers.com
Will Carruthers is the news editor of the Pacific Sun and North Bay Bohemian. Email tips to [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Carruthers_W.

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