What We Can Learn About Governance From SMART

An observation of the way in which SMART was created and has since been managed holds some useful lessons about effective governance of a public agency. These lessons are quite aside from the debate of whether or not SMART will yield the transportation benefits its advocates assert will happen.

Too narrow purpose – The SMART District was authorized for the purpose of developing a commuter rail system. The result is that any other alternative use of the right of way was never even considered. Theodore Levitt, the late Harvard Business School professor, wrote about “marketing myopia”, or the process of defining the market too narrowly. He suggested that had the buggy whip business seen its role as being in the transportation accessory business, rather than in the buggy whip business, they might still be in business today. SMART would have been improved had the goal been to improve transportation in the North Bay using the old NWP rail right-of-way.

No accountability to voters – If voters find the Smart District performing unsatisfactorily, there is very little the voters can do, short of mounting a ballot initiative, which, as we have seen, is a difficult and expensive undertaking. One of the most important checks on government is the ability of voters to replace their representatives at the ballot box. Voters have no such right with the SMART directors who are appointed by other elected representatives. This leaves SMART directors largely insulated from the will of the voters – never a scenario for good government.

There are ample reasons that voters find the actions of SMART unsatisfactory in just the first few years after the sales tax measure has passed. Among those are the revamping of the system that voters were promised in exchange for the tax that was passed, jettisoning the bicycle/pedestrian path, wasting of resources on salaries and benefits in excess of amounts needed to attract and retain qualified employees and financial projections which have proven in multiple respects to have been overly optimistic and unreliable.

Oversight Committee a Joke – The Smart District has a Citizen Oversight Committee. The name is misleading, as those who populate the committee are little more than cheerleaders for the District. There is no evidence that any oversight is going on. At the federal level the separation of powers provides a useful check and balance, with each branch providing some oversight of the others to guard against abuses by one branch. An oversight committee with powers and populated independently might provide some improvement, but as constituted it’s a waste of resources.

Jack Atkin, President
Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association

Comments are closed.