upper waypoint

Battle Over BART Oversight Will Continue After Watchdog's Departure

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A train moving on tracks seen above a highway.
A BART train approaches the El Cerrito Plaza station on March 15, 2023, in El Cerrito. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Last week's announcement that BART intends to nearly triple the budget for its inspector general is unlikely to end the long-running battle over how much power the office, set up several years ago to guard against waste, fraud and abuse at the agency, should enjoy.

BART said last Wednesday that it had reached an agreement with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission that will increase the budget for its inspector general's office from $1 million to $2.7 million a year.

Under the agreement, $1.1 million of the new funds will come from regional bridge tolls. BART will provide the remaining $600,000.

Agency General Manager Bob Powers said in a statement the dramatic increase in funding shows the agency is committed to supporting the office.

The announcement came after a series of recent developments that showcased the continuing tension between BART and one of its toughest critics, East Bay state Sen. Steve Glazer, about whether the agency is being held sufficiently accountable for how it handles its $2.5 billion budget.

Glazer crafted the language that set up the BART inspector general's office as part of a 2018 ballot measure that raised bridge tolls on the Bay Area's seven state-owned bridges.

A man and three women stand in front of a podium with a microphone attached and signs. A press conference at BART's Orinda Station.
BART Inspector General Harriet Richardson (second from left) at a March 17, 2023, media event held to explain her resignation. Other participants included (left to right) state Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda and BART board members Debora Allen and Liz Ames. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed former Palo Alto auditor Harriet Richardson to the newly created post of inspector general in 2019. But as detailed in an Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report (PDF) last year — and in the BART Board of Directors' response (PDF) to that report — there was significant friction between the agency and its newly designated watchdog.

The grand jury alleged that BART's board and management engaged in "a pattern of obstruction" by, among other things, interfering with a risk assessment the inspector general was conducting and by failing to cooperate with Richardson's effort to create a charter that would codify her office's powers and responsibilities.

The BART board's response rejected those findings and said any lack of cooperation was due to the agency's initial misunderstanding of the inspector general's role. The response also argued that Richardson had failed to follow up on delivering a charter proposal.

The dispute led Sen. Glazer to introduce a bill last year, SB 1488, that would have clarified and expanded the inspector general's role. The final bill, which included a host of amendments BART requested, passed with virtually no opposition.

Sponsored

Nevertheless, BART urged Gov. Gavin Newsom to veto the bill over a provision the agency said failed to adequately protect union workers who might be compelled to meet with the inspector general during investigations.

Glazer said in a recent interview that he was shocked by the agency's 11th-hour move to kill the legislation.

"BART asked for a number of amendments to the bill, and I agreed to every single one of them," he said. "And then at the end of the day, they wrote a letter to the governor and said, 'Veto it.'"

Glazer said that episode and other "broken promises" were behind his decision in early March to withdraw from a special committee headed by San Francisco state Sen. Scott Wiener to address the funding crisis facing transit operators statewide.

The agencies, joined by the California Transit Association, public transportation advocates and many lawmakers, are working on a proposal that would provide bridge funding for operators that are facing huge deficits because of continued low ridership in the wake of the pandemic.

"I felt it was simply a cheerleading entity for BART and for more money," Glazer said. "And it didn't have as an important element to get the accountability and oversight that I think the riders and the taxpayers deserve to have."

Glazer's withdrawal from the Senate panel was followed quickly by an announcement from Richardson that she would leave her post in mid-March — five months earlier than planned. She was leaving early, she said, because of ongoing "challenges" dealing with the BART board and management — challenges she said were exemplified by last year's civil grand jury obstruction findings and the BART board's response.

Richardson's office had just released the results of several widely publicized investigations, including one in which she found that BART paid $350,000 to an outside agency for homelessness outreach services (PDF) that resulted in just one person being referred to a treatment program.

That finding was accompanied by the results of several other investigations, including one that substantiated an allegation that a BART worker was being paid for more than 80 hours of work a week despite not reporting for duty (PDF).

Related Coverage

BART board member Bevan Dufty, a member of the board's audit committee, said in an interview that he felt Richardson's work helped the agency. And he insisted that far more often than not, the board supported the inspector general's findings.

"Our inspector general has done good things," he said. "I'd like to point out that in the inspector general's own words, she acknowledged that 90% of the recommendations that she and her staff have made are either implemented or in the process of being implemented."

Dufty conceded that the office's original $1 million budget was "a hindrance." He blamed the failure to increase the budget before now on the fact that a long-running lawsuit blocked the release of Regional Measure 3 (PDF) toll revenue until earlier this year.

Responding to last week's announcement that the inspector general's budget will increase to $2.7 million, Glazer said in a statement, "The announcement to take the IG off its starvation diet is a positive step forward."

But he added that be believes the office still needs expanded authority. To that end, Glazer is trying again to pass legislation to expand the inspector general's authority and guarantee its independence. His SB 827 would also mandate misdemeanor criminal penalties against those who obstruct the office's investigations.

BART has expressed concern about the criminal penalty provision and has taken an official "support if amended" position on the bill, which is due for its first committee hearing next week.

The outcome of those legislative deliberations aside, the next task for BART will be finding Richardson's replacement. The law that created her position requires the agency to send the names of three candidates to Gov. Newsom, who will choose the next inspector general.

Sponsored

lower waypoint
next waypoint
California Legislature Halts 'Science of Reading' Mandate, Prompting Calls for Thorough ReviewTax Day 2024: From Credits to Extensions, What to Know About FilingPlanned Parenthood Northern California Workers Unionize With SEIU Local 1021California Requires Solar Panels on New Homes. Should Wildfire Victims Get a Break?‘The Notorious PhD’ on How Hip Hop Made AmericaInheriting a Home in California? Here's What You Need to KnowMayari: 'After the Rain'At 90, Willie Brown Reflects on His Rise to Top of California PoliticsConfrontation at UC Berkeley Law School Dean's Home Highlights Campus TensionsCalifornia's Black Lawmakers are Advancing Different Sets of Reparations Bills