The day that Mayor Newsom’s office announced it was searching for regular, everyday folk to join the SFMTA Board of Directors, I thought, “I can do this! I want to help instill the change we need that will improve Muni service, revenue collection, and general morale! Whoopee!” Little did I know this would lead me down a dark and potentially endless tunnel (and no, I’m not referring to the underground space between Church and the Embarcadero).
I stared at the application for a few days, wondering if this was something that I really wanted to do. There’s a huge time commitment: significant portions of two work days a month, plus tons of reading, town hall meetings, other committee meetings, and no compensation or stipend offered for time spent or wages lost (luckily, I could make up my day-job work–facilitating ethical practices in education research–in the evenings and on weekends). Because the SFMTA never released a position description, I searched the SFMTA site for agendas and used other Google-related investigative reporting methods to get some sense of the board’s function, time requirements, and duties.
But riding Muni for almost nine years, I feel like we, the riders, should be clamoring to take ownership for our system because, hey, if we don’t, we’re left to the devices of our supervisors, who have tons of other things to deal with like plastic bags, wheelchair ramps for the non-wheelchair-bound board of supes president, Barneys basement vs. the Central Subway, and squabbles brought to you by the letter “F”. The drivers’ have a sweet deal through the union, and Muni’s leadership includes fat-paycheck happy upper management. Where does that leave us common folk? With, many feel, squat.
So on April 1st, while everyone else was planning fart pranks, I banged out my application form (name, home address, employer, etc.) and statement of interest, signed where applicable, and snail mailed it in (email and fax were big no-no’s). And then I waited. And waited. And waited.
Then Sunday, April 18th rolled around. After a failed attempt to ride the zipline and a semi-decent but not stellar lunch at the Plant, the day could only get better, and it did in the form of an email from Newsom’s director of protocol and appointments, Matthew Goudeau.
Totally psyched, I looked past the fact that 1) Goudeau was working on an absolutely lovely Sunday afternoon and 2) that the email contained a typo (“Thank you again for interest in serving the people of San Francisco on the SFMTA Board of Directors.”). I’d been invited to interview–yippee!
Via the Appeal, I found out that I was one of nine out of 39 invited to the next round. Holy crap, really? Out of a city of 800,000+, City Hall only received 39 applications? This roughly equals 0% (or more accurately, .00488%) of the city’s population.
Perhaps my initial reaction was spot on: is this something ANYONE in their right mind would consciously volunteer for? Would we all just prefer to bitch and moan and walk and hail cabs and cry about public transit without actually doing anything constructive with our frustrations? Or was I simply losing brain cells just thinking about this? Most likely it’s a combination of all of the above, but for my sanity, I convinced myself of the latter, so I replied to Goudeau with a “Hell, Yeah!” email (OK, a “Thanks and I’ll be there” reply), tacking on a “how long should I block off?” and a “Who might I be meeting with?” inquiry. Neither of my questions were ever answered.
The morning of April 27th, we had copious amounts of rain accompanied with strong gusts of wind. I had blocked my calendar off for two hours, not knowing quite what to expect at City Hall. Leaving work, I made it up to Market, only to wait about 15 minutes for a bus. Checking NextMuni, I found that there was a gaping hole in the Market/Civic Center buses, so I finally grabbed a cab. Yes, I had to take a cab to my SFMTA interview. Gasp, sigh, get over it, move on already (I took a wet 5-Fulton back to work, if that makes your day any more peachy).
With 15 min. to spare, I ran to the restroom to confirm that I was frizz free and had no offending spots on my shirt, cardigan, or pants, and I wandered upstairs to Room 200. After getting a high-five from a 4-year-old (I don’t know if it was a day care or what, but a line of youngins walked by me and a little boy whipped out his hand and slapped mine. I took it as a sign.), I felt slightly more empowered, and walked into the Mayor’s office with confidence, only to find that the office itself was a little chaotic.
Minutes later, Goudeau came out of a side room and ushered me in, where five other people sat around a large, round wooden table. At first I thought, “Hey, group interview in the war room! Rock on!” But no, I was being interviewed by six people at once. Breathe, Becca. Breathe.
With this set-up, picking a chair seemed like a test in and of itself. There were four people sitting on the left of the table and two on the right. Where do I fit in? Do I sit with the people who look bored or the others who look even more bored? Eek, just sit down already! In the end, I sat to the right.
My tablemates quickly went around and introduced themselves, (one mumbling so much I couldn’t make out her name). They included:
- Paige Barry: advisor to the mayor
- Francis Tsang: Chinese-American community liaison
- Mr. Goudeau
- Roberta Boomer: board secretary to the SFMTA
- An African American woman who mumbled her name and position, and never looked up from her notebook. It’s very possible she was leafing through the most recent issue of People. Or National Geographic. Or the phonebook.
- Jason Elliott: policy advisor, frequent paper shuffler, and Milo Ventimiglia lookalike
First up, a discussion of the time commitment, which was one of my two biggest concerns. Being the sometimes overly honest person that I am, I said as much, pointing out that the mayor was looking for a regular transit rider, someone who supposedly rode Muni every day, and (I assumed) someone who could relate to most riders’ qualms, but who is also financially secure enough to commit to portions of days away from work, lots of meetings, and an amount of reading comparable to what I managed in grad school.
And, I transitioned, all of this unpaid work needed to be worth it. Most people (and you can chime in below in the comments if I’m off the mark on this one) don’t just rearrange their work schedules or ask for favors from their employers for something that’s a dead end. Simply put, I wanted to know what the actual ability of the SFMTA Board of Directors was to institute proactive change across the board (no pun intended). And was the current board willing to go the extra mile to improve the system instead of castrate it?
Yet this question, which I brought up in different ways throughout the mini-interview (or miniview, as I like to call it), was largely ignored with the generic response, “We can’t say. This is really up to the board.”
I expressed my unhappiness with bus dependability, cleanliness, riders not paying their fares, safety, speed of transit, and crammed space. I also made a point of stating that with the economy in the tank and Muni reducing hours, lines, and buses, we should be making public transit more accessible to everyone, especially those in lower income areas and those who can’t afford to drive, instead of less.
For instance, I used to take the 5-Fulton bus inbound (toward downtown) in the morning, but had to stop when it got so crammed that the driver stopped picking up passengers west of Masonic. Lucky for me, I had another bus line nearby.
Now, almost every morning, my 21-Hayes bus stops picking up passengers around Divisadero. What happens when we go through the Western Addition? We just fly on by, while waiting riders-to-be yell expletives at what’s very possibly the third bus to pass them by in a half hour.
If we do manage to stop, most people crowd on through the back door (like earlier this week when a man with an oxygen tank and an older women with a toddler all hopped on the back door. Safe? No. Did they get where they wanted to go? Yes. Could we do better? Abso-fucking-lutely).
From my view, rider morale plays a large role; if riders feel screwed and marginalized, what motivates them to take ownership of a system with failing leadership and misguided management?
Another big question that I probably failed to answer well was one around making decisions. If I had to vote yes or no on a heated topic, how would I make my decision? Well, I come from a research background, so I want information and lots of it. Numbers, case studies, impact analyses, interviews, you name it.
And how do I feel about making an unpopular decision because of budget factors? Well, I’m an idealist, so deep down, I’d feel crappy. But if something is so unpopular and the effects would be felt far and wide, maybe it’s not the right decision. Or maybe we need to get creative. No matter what, though, I think my decision-making skills come down to a combination of my head, heart, and gut because these are people’s lives that we’re dealing with here. Public transit is meant to serve the people, dammit.
During my miniview, three of my interviewers (Barry, Tsang, and Silent Woman) never spoke, period. Boomer and Elliott asked the most questions, with the warmest smile, eye contact, and note taking coming from Boomer.
My interview took less than 15 minutes. Shocker? No, not really. What was more surprising was the timeline presented to me for selecting the mayor’s recommendations: about a month of so for the panel’s recommendations to go to the mayor and then have the nominee(s) vetted and approved by the Board of Supervisors. As I left, the next candidate, an older gentleman, was waiting, rubbing his hands together as if making a wish.
At this point, would I join the board if asked? The time commitment is huge, but that could be managed. The big kicker is the vibe that I got from the panel was that the Board of Directors doesn’t utilize itself well. Really, why fight for bus riders’ rights if the governing system itself isn’t effective?
I’m sure I sound apathetic, but I want to sit on a board that’s ready and willing to take a stand, and that’s not the impression the interviewers gave me. And from Supervisor David Campos’ discussion with Streetsblog, it looks like I’m not the only one in this camp.