T oversight comes down to arcane question

House, Senate split on who should appoint GM

WITH THE MBTA’S oversight board scheduled to sunset in a matter of weeks, the House and Senate are at odds over the arcane question of who should have the authority to appoint the transit authority’s general manager.

The Senate on Thursday approved legislation that would expand the oversight board from five to seven members and give the board the power to appoint the general manager. The House previously passed legislation expanding the board to seven members but leaving the general manager’s appointment in the hands of the governor’s secretary of transportation.

Gov. Charlie Baker appeared to side with the House approach at a press conference at the Greater Boston Food Bank on Thursday. Asked specifically if he wanted to retain the power to appoint the general manager, Baker said: “Yeah, I think the governor should have a role in appointing the general manager.”

“One of the reasons the T got into some of the difficulty, both financially, operationally, and organizationally, that it got into was because it got removed from what I think of as the accountability of the governor’s office and the executive branch generally,” Baker said. “Going forward, the more accountable the T can be and the operation and the leadership of the T can be to the executive branch, and particularly the governor, the lieutenant governor, the better off we’re going to be.”

Sen. Joseph Boncore of Winthrop, the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, said he wants the governor to be held accountable for the T. He noted the Senate’s bill gives the governor authority to appoint five members of the board, a sixth is the governor’s secretary of transportation, and the seventh is an appointee of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents cities and towns in the T’s service area.

“With six out of seven of the appointments, the governor would have de facto influence over the board,” Boncore said.

The Senator pointed out that the Senate’s legislation also requires the support of five members to approve any general manager appointment if that appointment is opposed by the secretary of transportation.

Boncore noted the Senate’s oversight proposal for the T is not unique in state government. For example, the board of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which operates Logan International Airport, is set up on the exact same lines as the MBTA oversight board envisioned by the Senate legislation. The board has seven members – five appointed by the governor, one his secretary of transportation, and one appointed by the Massport Community Advisory Committee. The top administrator at Massport is appointed by the board. The governor has not raised concerns about that arrangement in the past.

Rep. William Straus of Mattapoisett, the House chair of the Transportation Committee, said he believes the governor should retain the ability, through his transportation secretary, to appoint the T’s general manager. He said doing otherwise runs counter to the last 20 years of reform efforts.

“A unified management is critically important to sound operation and identifying lines of responsibility,” Straus said in an email. “The public views it as one system, and things like this, which may appear arcane, helped create the isolated T that we still are trying to fix.  If we are going to hold governors responsible for how the T (or other agencies run), then the legal structure has to reflect that.”

If the Legislature fails to approve some new form of oversight for the MBTA before June 30, the Fiscal and Management Control Board will go out of existence and oversight of the T will fall to the larger and more hands-off board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportartion.

Here’s what else Baker said at his press conference:

He said he did not worry about police unions turning on him because of his support for greater transparency and accountability in policing. “I hope everybody at this point understands that there needs to be more transparency and accountability around law enforcement. And I say that as somebody who is a big believer and supporter – I know the lieutenant governor is as well – of the law enforcement community.”

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

He said he stands by the timeline he has given for when he first heard about a breakout of COVID-19 cases and deaths at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home. Baker said he, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, and Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services, first heard about it on a Sunday night in the wake of a call from Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. WBUR, citing emails and other documents, reported on Thursday that Sudders learned about it from union officials representing workers at the facility at least 24 hours earlier. Baker said he is awaiting the completion of a report on the Holyoke facility rather than relying on “bits and bites” of information that emerge independently.

He offered no assurances that there will be enough money to fund the Student Opportunity Act, which the Legislature passed before the pandemic began to address underfunding of educational services in many lower-income communities. Baker said the state’s financial picture is unclear because there are too many moving pieces. For example, he said, it’s unclear how much money will flow into state coffers in mid-July, when state taxes for 2019 are due. He also chided the Legislature for failing to act quickly on a supplemental budget bill of more than $1 billion that he says will be fully reimbursed by the federal government. He said the Legislature needs to appropriate the funds and then he can go to the federal government for reimbursement. One reason there hasn’t been quick action by the Legislature on his  supplemental budget request is that it consists of the appropriation request with no backup information on what the governor has spent the money on.