An ex-staffer’s perspective on T governance

Laurel Paget-Seekins spent six years at the MBTA, rising through the ranks to assistant general manager for policy before she left at the end of last year to become a fellow at the George Soros-backed Open Society Foundations. She was considered one of the T’s top employees and often made presentations to the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which makes her recent blog musings on the T’s governance structure illuminating.

The control board was established after the transit authority’s snowmageddon collapse of 2015. Previously, the T had been overseen by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board – a largely hands-off group of overseers known for listening politely and doing what they are told. The control board is much more hands-on, although it wouldn’t be characterized as independent. All the key players – the five board members, the secretary of transportation, and the T general manager – are appointed directly or indirectly by the governor, so consensus is prized and differences tend to be muted.

Still, the control board is very good at bringing transportation policy out of the backroom and into the light. And on those rare occasions when policy is actually debated, the board provides a glimpse at how the sausage is made. With the control board set to expire in June, it’s unclear what, if anything, will replace it. 

Paget-Seekins offers a staffer’s perspective. In her blog post, she said the board should play an important role on major policy decisions, such as fare and service changes, budgets, and long-term planning. But she said all too often the board delves into lower-tier issues, which tend to take up a lot of staff time and undercut the authority of the general manager, who normally would have made those decisions. The divided power structure – Paget-Seekins calls it “muddled”— creates a confused chain of command while allowing staff members like herself to do some freelancing.

“The creation of the FMCB broke the wall between the board and staff,” Paget-Seekins said. “I, and a few other staff members, took advantage of this access and pushed through changes that we wanted by going around the GM and/or secretary directly to board members. (It was like being the child of seven divorced parents.) This made a few good things happen (and some things that could have been better thought out), but in the end I realized it wasn’t good for the long-term functioning of the organization.”

For Paget-Seekins, policy-making in public is good in theory but often difficult in practice. “During my many presentations I tried my best to push back on unrealistic expectations or explain the interconnected nature of decisions, but there was often a lot I left unsaid,” she said. “Sometimes the secretary or general manager would help us out, but they didn’t always have the technical knowledge, or probably want to have the conversation in public either. I wonder if sometimes we didn’t get the most optimal policy decisions because the discussion was happening in public. I value transparency, but is it transparency if there are important details that aren’t being said because of how power works? I am not sure how exactly to solve this problem.”

The control board meetings were also a time sink. “As an example, a powerpoint presentation I prepared for a board meeting would often require two to three levels/rounds of review, while no one reviewed the decks I prepared for a meeting with the GM,” Paget-Seekins said. “When I talked to peers at other agencies, they would laugh incredulously at the idea of their board meeting that often.”

Paget-Seekins also thinks the GM’s role needs to change. “I worked for five GMs during my time at the MBTA and likely three of them wouldn’t be considered qualified to be GM at almost any other major transit agency due to their lack of transit and/or management experience. (Hint, I am not talking about the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies.) The long string of GMs before I (or the FMCB) arrived indicates that there is a mismatch in the skills/experience required, the responsibility of the position, and the power or authority the position holds. In my personal opinion, the MBTA would be better off if the GM role was a technical hire drawn from the transit industry, not a political or Massachusetts insider hire.”

For the record, Beverly Scott is the Black woman who had already been GM at other agencies. The GMs that followed her on an acting, interim, or permanent basis were Frank DePaola, Brian Shortsleeve, Luis Manuel Ramirez, and Steve Poftak.

BRUCE MOHL

 

FROM COMMONWEALTH

As some states are beginning to hit a “vaccine wall,” where everyone who wants a COVID-19 shot has gotten one and those left unvaccinated are uninterested, Gov. Charlie Baker said vaccine hesitancy is less of a problem in Massachusetts than elsewhere. “We don’t have a lot of hesitancy with respect to Massachusetts,” Baker said. Read more.

The House, getting in line behind a high priority of Speaker Ron Mariano, unanimously passed a budget amendment that would do away with the planned sunset of the film tax credit program at the end of next year. The vote was 160-0, with no one in the chamber dissenting despite a recent report by the state Tax Expenditure Commission that said the film tax credit “is not the best use of the state’s money.” Read more.

MBTA officials laid out a multi-billion-dollar plan for reducing the bus fleet’s carbon emissions to zero by annually rolling out a steady stream of hybrid electric-diesel and battery-electric buses with the share of all-electric buses dependent on how fast the agency’s old maintenance garages can be overhauled and rebuilt. Read more.

Gov. Charlie Baker proposed a slew of changes to improve road safety, including enhancing penalties for injuring someone while driving with a suspended license, letting municipalities install red light cameras, and letting the police stop someone for not wearing a seatbelt. Baker’s bill includes some proposals that are new and others – like the primary seatbelt law – that have previously been ignored by lawmakers. Read more.

Massachusetts grew by enough people over the past decade to keep all nine US House seats as the state’s population climbed to more than 7 million over the past decade, but Secretary of State William Galvin said the process of redrawing Congressional districts still will be challenging. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

A report from the Pioneer Institute says a state “millionaire’s” tax on high earners would be bad for Greater Boston’s startup sector. (Boston Herald

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Methuen city officials are considering auditing the Department of Public Works after a lawsuit was filed alleging sexual harassment there. (Eagle-Tribune)

The Brockton city council forms a new committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion. (The Enterprise

The Dorchester Reporter takes a walk through the L Street Bathhouse, which is being renovated in South Boston.

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

“Breakthrough” cases of COVID among people who have been fully vaccinated are shocking to those who thought they were protected, but are to be expected, say health experts and vaccine manufacturers. (Washington Post)

French drug-maker Sanofi has signed a deal to manufacture 200 million doses of Cambridge-based Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. (Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

An initial count indicates those seeking to remove Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom from office have gathered enough signatures to prompt a recall election. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

New York will lose a House seat under congressional reapportionment but would not have had the state counted just 89 more residents in the 2020 Census. (New York Times

Somerset will hold a special election on July 12 to fill the vacancy on its Board of Selectmen created by the abrupt resignation earlier this month of Holly McNamara. (Herald News) McNamara said she was weary of the nasty battles that have erupted over the site of the former Brayton Point power plant. 

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A 16,000-square-foot pot “supermarket,” which will be Boston’s largest cannabis dispensary, is preparing to open near TD Garden. (Boston Herald

EDUCATION

The state’s public university system will require returning students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. (MassLive)

TRANSPORTATION

The MBTA announces plans to resume more ferry service to Hingham and the South Shore. (Patriot Ledger)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

At a public hearing, neighbors speak out against plans to build a gas power plant in Peabody. (Salem News)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The federal corruption trial starts of former Fall River mayor Jasiel Correia, who is accused of misusing his business investors’ money and, as mayor, extorting bribes from marijuana companies. (Associated Press)

Stephanie Everett, who will head Boston’s new police accountability office, will have one of the toughest jobs in city government. (Boston Globe)

MEDIA

Ben Smith, media columnist at the New York Times, explores Facebook’s decision-making process for determining what is allowed and what isn’t.