What kind of oversight does the T need today?

Four years ago, in the wake of Snowmageddon, Gov. Charlie Baker called for the creation of a new Fiscal and Management Control Board to oversee the MBTA.

Not everyone thought the new board was a good idea. Rep. William Straus, the co-chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, saw the control board as an unnecessary, new layer of bureaucracy between the Massachusetts Department of Transportation board and the T.

But the Legislature gave the governor what he wanted, and Baker appointed five people to oversee the T. The board members received no pay and were required to meet at least three times a month. Baker, through his secretary of transportation, appointed the general manager of the transit authority.

One of the primary goals of the new management regime was to bring focus and stability to the MBTA. “The MBTA has been hobbled by frequent changes of leadership, significant vacancies, looming attrition, and overall instability,” said an action plan written in April 2015 by a special panel appointed by Baker. The panel noted that the MBTA had nine general managers since the position was created in 1981, six of them (three of whom were interim GMs) in the last 10 years.

On Monday, another special panel, this time appointed by the Fiscal and Management Control Board, issued a scathing report on the MBTA’s inattention to safety issues. Two key findings of the safety panel related to governance issues.

“Starting at the executive leadership level, the recurrent turnover in general managers over the past 10 years has been incredibly disruptive and has placed the agency in a vulnerable position,” the panel’s report said. “This may be the overarching reason that we see the level of safety deficiency at the agency.”

The report noted that there have been nine general managers since 2010. Since Baker took office and Beverly Scott departed as general manager, the T has had six GMs, four of them interim appointments. Luis Manuel Ramirez served just 15 months and the current GM, Steve Poftak, was appointed in January.

The safety report also said the frequent meetings of the Fiscal and Management Control Board, which typically last three to four hours, were having a detrimental effect on the T. “Staff preparation to meet the needs of the Board is overwhelming and leaves staff little if any time to tend to the operation of the maintenance of the system,” the report said. “It’s unquestionable that this mandate is causing staff to ‘take their eye off the ball’ and contributes to safety not getting the time and attention it requires.”

The control board, in defiance of the existing law, began meeting less in July to free up more time for staff to do their work. With the control board set to expire in June next year, Baker said he would file legislation next month creating a new oversight board. He said the legislation would include two recommendations of the safety panel – that the board meet less and include at least one member with operational and safety expertise.

But as the debate over the next control board begins, it’s worth thinking about what kind of oversight the T needs today. It may be true that the control board meets too often, but each time it meets it seems like there’s plenty of work to be done.

The board has matured into a powerful policy organization. All of its members are appointed by the governor, but the board has repeatedly demonstrated its independence, pushing for a major commuter rail makeover and advocating somewhat quietly for more spending on transportation. The board over the last four-plus years has been a pillar of stability at an agency where GMs have come and gone frequently.

More importantly, the board, through its frequent meetings, has opened transit policy discussions to the public. The meetings may be orchestrated and somewhat stilted at times, but the key players are there setting policy in public for everyone to see.

The safety panel on Monday focused a lot of attention on the culture of the MBTA. “To meet the demands of the future, the agency must address its safety culture – it is critical to every aspect of the agency,” the report said. “The GM must make safety his number one priority and realize there is nothing more important to the T’s customers and employees than safety.”

That may be true. But as the GM goes about addressing safety issues, attention should also be paid to MBTA governance. The meetings of the control board may consume an enormous amount of staff time, but they represent a major culture shift for an agency known in the past for flying under the radar.

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL

The Massachusetts DAs suspend participation in the state Sentencing Commission because of a dispute over guidelines that have never been submitted to the Legislature for approval. (State House News)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS

The Boston City Council will take up a proposal tomorrow to slap a 2 percent tax on all real estate sales of properties for $2 million or more. (Boston Globe)

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and City Councilor Josh Zakim propose changes to the Trust Act, which focuses on the city’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities. (CommonWealth)

Developers hoping to build the mixed-use Allston Yards got an earful from neighbors who are upset about the limited window the city provides for commenting. (WGBH)

The Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission announced it has authorized ARL Healthcare to start medical use of marijuana operations in New Bedford and Middleboro, as soon as Friday. (The Enterprise) 

About 140 feet below the sea surface, authorities located the Leonardo, a scallop fishing boat that sank just before Thanksgiving, killing three. (AP)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Democratic House members appear prepared to unveil two articles of impeachment today against President Trump. (New York Times

The Washington Post rolled out a massive, multipart report on the US war in Afghanistan, based on government interviews with more than 400 insiders, showing consistent efforts to cover up an understanding that war was not winnable.

ELECTIONS

Following a three-day recount, Julia Mejia was declared the winner of the fourth at-large Boston city council seat by a single vote over Alejandra St. Guillen. (Boston Globe

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

The state is not churning out enough graduates in life sciences to keep up with the demand for new workers in the sector in Massachusetts. (Boston Globe

A group of 15 Cape municipalities are struggling to calculate tax revenue acquired through a new short-term rental tax. (Cape Cod Times) 

The state’s two US senators, Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey, coauthored a letter to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred protesting a plan to strip the Red Sox-affiliated Lowell Spinners and 41 other minor-league teams of their MLB affiliation. (Boston Globe)

EDUCATION

Opposition is growing to Harvard’s decision to deny tenure to a Latinix studies professor. (Boston Globe)

North Shore Community College is partnering with an app called Nesterly to link homeless students with affordable living spaces. (Daily Item)

TRANSPORTATION 

In a scathing assessment, a three-member panel of experts reports that a culture of safety is lacking at the T. Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration had failed to address the problem, seems to take the news in stride. (CommonWealth) Joe Battenfeld says the safety report badly damages Baker and his prospects for a third term, and could jeopardize Stephanie Pollack’s job as transportation secretary. (Boston Herald

The MBTA slows down and phases in the introduction of a new fare collection system, in part because there was little assurance the agency and its contractors could get the job done under the old schedule. Costs will be going up as a result. (CommonWealth)

T notes: A Fairmount pilot project, featuring more trips per day and CharlieCard validators on the platforms, is likely to pass muster….New bus demonstration projects are also in the works….The T puts in an order for 60 more hybrid (not electric) buses. (CommonWealth)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Protesters who blockaded a coal train from delivering its freight to a power plant in Bow, New Hampshire, called the railroad ahead of time to let officials know there would be people on the tracks. A judge dismissed the charges against 10 people who arrested in Ayer early Sunday morning. (Lowell Sun

Residents fighting the construction of the Weymouth natural-gas compressor station want excavation of contaminated fill at the site halted until regulators order more testing for asbestos. (Patriot Ledger) 

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Brockton resident Kyle Melara has been indicted by a Plymouth County grand jury on multiple charges, including trafficking fentanyl and cocaine. (The Enterprise)

MEDIA

The American Journalism Project awards $8.5 million to 11 local journalism initiatives. (Nieman Journalism Lab)

The producers of Richard Jewell, an upcoming movie directed by Clint Eastwood, are sued for inaccurately portraying a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. (Variety)

Paul Bascobert, chief executive officer of Gannett Media Corp, just announced more layoffs. (Media Nation) Apparently employees have been ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements as a condition of receiving severance, and told to stop tweeting about the situation. (Poynter)

DEATHS

Pete Frates, the one-time Boston College baseball slugger whose battle with ALS inspired the “Ice Bucket Challenge” that raised millions to research the disease, died at age 34. (Boston Globe)

Frank DePaola, a former general manager of the T, died of cancer. (Boston Herald)