5 finalists competing to represent Washtenaw County on new Southeast Michigan regional transit board
Interviews are set to begin Thursday morning as Washtenaw County looks to make two appointments to a new Southeast Michigan Regional Transit Authority governing board.
County Board Chairman Conan Smith, D-Ann Arbor, gets to make the appointments, and he says five finalists have been selected for public interviews from a pool of 18 applicants.
"We have some really excellent candidates," Smith said on Wednesday, adding they all bring unique experiences to the table and all of them are strong transit advocates.
The first of five 30-minute interviews is expected to start at 8:45 a.m. at the Washtenaw County Learning Resource Center, Room A, 4135 Washtenaw Ave. Doors open at 8 a.m.
The five finalists are:
- Elisabeth Gerber, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan's Ford School and former director of the school's Center for Local, State and Urban Policy. Her current research focuses in part on regionalism, intergovernmental cooperation and transportation policy.
- Richard Murphy, a transit advocate who works with Smith as a programs director at the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. He is a former Ypsilanti city planner who worked with Smith on the RTA policy.
- David Nacht, an Ann Arbor attorney and board member for the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority, which falls under the umbrella of the new four-county RTA. He said he would fight to make sure the quality of service remains high for Washtenaw County residents.
- John Waterman, a disability rights advocate who runs a nonprofit in Ypsilanti called Programs to Educate All Cyclists, or PEAC. He believes independent transportation is the greatest barrier faced by individuals with disabilities and a strong transit system is the solution.
- Wendy Woods, a former Ann Arbor City Council member, Ann Arbor planning commissioner, and associate director and adjunct lecturer at U-M's Michigan Community Scholars Program. She believes improving transportation infrastructure is a fundamental issue for the region.
Three of the five interviewees will be joining via Skype. The interviews are expected to wrap up by noon followed by an open discussion.
The interviews are open to the public and will be conducted by an advisory committee Smith established this month. Smith said he plans to make the appointments with the committee's input by Dec. 31, which is when his term as chairman of the county board ends.
Transportation Riders United, a Detroit-based nonprofit group dedicated to improving transit in the greater Detroit area, both praised and criticized Smith on Wednesday for the public process set up to make the board appointments, which are called for under a new law signed by Gov. Rick Snyder.
According to the new RTA law, Washtenaw County's board chairman gets to make two appointments, while each county executive in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb gets to make two appointments. Additionally, the mayor of Detroit and the governor each get one appointment.
Ryan J. Stanton | AnnArbor.com
TRU maintains the new Southeast Michigan RTA, which Snyder signed into law on Dec. 19, provides the region a huge opportunity to transform transit, yet that transformation is largely dependent on the people appointed to oversee and manage the new authority.
"The RTA represents an opportunity to make Detroit a more globally competitive region — if we do it right," TRU said in its statement. "County executives should appoint bold, regionally-focused transit advocates to the board. As a region, it's time to move beyond traditional divisions and politics, and work together for our shared success."
TRU called the process for Washtenaw County's appointments "rushed," noting Smith announced on Dec. 14 that applications were due by Dec. 21.
Smith said it's fair for TRU to criticize the timing.
"I wish the Legislature had passed this bill and the governor had signed it six months or a year ago and we would have had a longer process for sure," he said. "The politics of it just worked out that we had a short timeline. It would be better if we had more time."
Smith said he's moving swiftly to make appointments before his term ends and not leaving it up to the county board's next chairman because he feels personally invested in the issue.
"I worked on the RTA thing for more than a decade, and on this particular piece of legislation with my colleagues around the region — the county executives from the other counties and Mayor Bing," he said. "And I had a personal desire to see it through to the end to just sort of close the loop."
Smith said he doesn't think making the appointments to the RTA board now or later will have any impact on whether Washtenaw County stays in the RTA.
"We're required to seat appointees within 90 days of the signing of the bill, so the clock started ticking last week," he said. "We would have had to do this by March regardless."
By law, the appointees cannot be employees of the counties, city or transit agencies, nor can they be elected officials. They must be appointed within 90 days, or by mid-March.
The RTA board will be responsible for a new regional transit plan, a planned rolling rapid transit system, hiring a CEO, deciding whether to put a millage or vehicle registration fee on the ballot in the four counties, and more. Ann Arbor officials have said they want Washtenaw County removed from the RTA because they don't think the county stands to benefit under the law that was approved.
County Commissioner Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, who is expected to be appointed chairman of the county board in early January, said Smith made the decision to fast-track the RTA appointment process before stepping down as chairman. Rabhi, who is on the committee advising Smith, said he agreed with TRU's criticism that the process might be too rushed.
"My recommendation to Conan was that we needed a public process, and my recommendation was to wait and to have a more fulsome public process," Rabhi said. "That's what I did recommend — that we wait until next year to do it. Not because I want to make the appointments, but just because I believe we need an expansive public process."
Rabhi, who supports Washtenaw County's inclusion in the RTA, thinks it will be hard for anyone to convince state lawmakers to remove Washtenaw County from the RTA in the next session.
"At the end of the day, this is the right thing to do for our region and we are part of this region," he said. "Whether we like it or not, we're part of Southeast Michigan, and there should be a way to get around our region without having a single-occupancy vehicle."
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.