Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Plan Bay Area backstory



by Bob Silvestri

In theory Joint Powers Authorities are created and managed by agreement between local or regional governments or agencies (water, power, sewer, police, housing, or city and county governments) under the supervision of our local elected representatives or at the least the staff members or appointees of those elected officials. However, the reality is that almost all JPAs are run by politically appointed executives who have no prior relationship with any of the JPAs member organizations. They go on to hire their own staff and consultants to create the team that will manage and make decisions for this new “quasi-governmental” agency on a day to day basis.

In practice, a JPA’s actions go largely unsupervised by anyone after their formation is approved. And the locally elected officials who approved it, who are often unpaid volunteers, can’t possibly analyze their complexities and potential unintended consequences of what they’ve created. So it’s pretty much all done on good faith and a cursory review of the JPA’s annual report...

...Entities like the Marin Energy Authority (MEA), the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART), and most notably the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), are all JPAs. None of the executives who make policy decisions or direct staff reports are elected. Today JPAs can take on debt (sell bonds, borrow money, etc.) without any vote by ratepayers or taxpayers or elected representatives, even though many provide critical public services or infrastructure...

JPAs are predominantly run by unelected, politically appointed executives and their staff, who rarely have any allegiance or apparently even a hint of fiduciary responsibility to their clients: the residents and taxpayers receiving the services they provide. JPA executive committees and their cadre of highly paid consultants pretty much get to make up their own rules, which are typically rubber stamped by their city and county members (as in the case of ABAG). JPA executives generally get to set their own salaries and benefits, and in the case of MEA and SMART, they are clearly making up their own style of creative accounting.

For example, the small staff at Marin Energy Authority is arguably one of the highest paid of any JPA in the state (or any comparable private company I know of), even though they are also arguably some of the least experienced and unqualified for their positions. In the meantime MEA has broken every promise on rates it ever made during its public dog and pony show (i.e. “Our rates will always be lower than PG&E's"; “Our greenhouse gas emissions will always be lower than PG&E’s”). MEA sold everyone on buzzwords like “deep green,” but in fact most of their “green energy” (3.5 billion metric tons worth of GHGs) appears to be created by buying “renewable energy certificates”---an off the books accounting method that would make ENRON energy traders “green” with envy. Of course, SMART’s bookkeeping and financial promises went out the window even before the ballot count on the sales tax was complete.

But of late one JPA in particular has had the spotlight turned on it in a big way: ABAG.

The Plan Bay Area Trojan Horse

With Plan Bay Area now adopted we are hearing a chorus of supporters assuring us that although it may not be perfect, it’s a good start. I beg to differ. However, it’s not really the Plan that is so problematic. It’s more about the laws and agencies that are driving the Plan and the potential unintended consequences and very real consequences of that and how it will impact our future.

In some ways Plan Bay Area was a bejeweled Trojan Horse, promising only good things on the outside but filled with problems on the inside. But in order to fully appreciate this, some backstory is required...

Read the rest here.


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