Planned legislation would unseat Sound Transit directors

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers from Pierce and Snohomish counties will make another run at replacing directors of Sound Transit by changing how their seats are filled.

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place, and Rep. Mark Harmsworth, R-Mill Creek, say they will introduce legislation in the 2017 session requiring board members be directly elected rather than appointed.

They intend to put forth the same bill they did in the 2016 session that lapsed. Passage of ST3 will incite more vigorous consideration next year, they said.

“There is a certain urgency now that Sound Transit is managing $54 billion of taxpayer money,” O’Ban said.

Harmsworth, who opposed the ballot measure, agreed.

“I think it becomes more pressing because (board members) now have the authority to go forward with the $54 billion plan,” he said.

Sound Transit 3 calls for adding 62 miles of new Link light-rail lines including extending track to Everett Station by 2036. Other new light-rail destinations include Tacoma, Ballard, West Seattle, downtown Redmond, south Kirkland and Issaquah.

Sound Transit plans to pay for the work with revenue from increases in the sales tax, property tax and car tab fees collected within the boundaries of the agency service area as well as federal funds and bond receipts.

The Sound Transit board is made up of 17 local elected officials — 10 from King County, four from Pierce County and three from Snohomish County. The executive in each county makes the appointments. Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar is a nonvoting member as well.

Snohomish County is represented by County Executive Dave Somers, Everett Councilman Paul Roberts and Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling.

O’Ban contends directly electing board members would give voice to a greater number of Sound Transit taxpayers and increase accountability of the agency’s day-to-day operations.

He envisions creation of a 19-person panel with each person elected from a separate district. It would result in 12 members from King County, four from Pierce County and three from Snohomish County. All positions would be nonpartisan.

The problem with the current system is county executives wield too much authority with their appointment power, he said. It’s particularly troubling that the King County executive gets to appoint a majority, he said.

“Making this board accountable to the people directly is consistent with a long cherished tradition of democracy” of ensuring taxation with representation, he said.

Opponents of the change argue each Sound Transit board member already is elected and thus accountable to voters.

“When we vote on a package, the specifics of the package are spelled out in the package,” said Roberts, who is vice chairman of the board. “Sound Transit has done a pretty good job of delivering these projects on time and on budget.”

The current approach forces leaders of the region’s cities, counties and transit agencies to work together on expansion — as they did in cobbling together ST3, Roberts said.

Such collaborative planning would be less likely to occur with the proposed change because each member would be focused on needs of their district rather than the region’s, he said.

“Balkanizing the system is not an answer to building a regional system,” Roberts said earlier.

This is not a new debate. There have been several attempts to create a directly elected board to oversee the regional transit agency operations. For example, in 2012 and again in 2013 lawmakers introduced bills to create a five-member elected board. Neither received a hearing.

The bill introduced by O’Ban last session did get a hearing in the Senate Transportation Committee in February but never came up for a vote.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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