The Mercury News
BART, Newsom drove out auditor voters demanded
“Enough is enough.” Harriet Richardson has decided to retire March 17 rather than endure the remaining 4½ months of her four-year term as BART inspector general. There are no signs things are going to get better. Her announcement this week and explanation are completely understandable.
Since mid-2019, she has had to put up with undermining behavior by a majority of the BART board members and, recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom. It's clear that they are hellbent on fighting reasonable implementation of a voter-approved mandate for independent oversight.
They are more interested in placating their labor union political backers than ensuring the transit agency provides riders with clean and timely train service and responsibly spends money.
It was BART leaders' misplaced loyalty to the unions that prompted state Sen. Steve Glazer, D-Orinda, in 2018 to insist on an inspector general to oversee the transit agency's expenditures and operations.
Bay Area voters were being asked at the time to approve bridge toll hikes to provide billions of dollars for transit agencies' capital projects and operation expenses. The biggest beneficiary of capital money under Regional Measure 3 was BART, which will receive $1.1 billion, including $500 million for new cars and $375 million to help extend the system to San Jose.
To keep Glazer from opposing the measure, RM3 backers agreed to his demand that it include the new oversight position. The provision provides that the governor selects the inspector general from a list of three names submitted by BART.
Which is how Richardson got the job in 2019. She came with stellar auditing credentials that included three decades working for the federal government; Atlanta, Ga.; King County, Wash; Washington state; San Francisco; Berkeley; and Palo Alto.
She was also a member of the U.S. Comptroller General's Government Auditing Standards Advisory Council and is currently a member of the Government Accounting Standards Board Advisory Council and the Institute of Internal Auditors International Internal Audit Standards Board.
But BART is an agency where you need to go along with the labor unions to get along. BART management and the board have repeatedly supported labor demands that the inspector general notify the unions before talking to workers, which, of course, makes it impossible to ensure a free flow of information and undermines employees' whistleblower protections.
According to Alameda County grand jury findings last year, BART once instructed staff not to cooperate with the inspector general and BART General Manager Bob Powers required that all communication with employees be sent through him.
Newsom last year vetoed a bill by Glazer, which had passed the Legislature with no votes of opposition, that would have ensured the inspector general had essential access to facilities, employees and documents necessary for doing her job. Glazer has introduced a new bill this year that would simply grant the BART inspector general the same powers and access as the IG for the state Department of Transportation.
Despite the obstacles, Richardson had admirably pushed ahead, uncovering legally questionable contracting practices, a $2.2 million contract involving former BART employees and troubling conflicts of interest, $350,000 spent on a wasteful homeless program, and a maintenance worker who collected pay and benefits for time not worked.
As Richardson retires, an independent auditor is needed more than ever. Officials from Bay Area transit agencies, including BART, are seeking bailouts from Sacramento and considering asking voters for yet another regional measure to bolster funding for bus, ferry and commuter rail service.
As we said last week, any new funding should be contingent on consolidation and coordination of the region's ridiculous 27 transit agencies to provide greater efficiency and ensure riders can transfer seamlessly, and an end to excessive benefit packages.
It should also require true independence for BART's inspector general, including a lifting of the roadblocks Richardson has had to endure, elimination of the BART board's role in picking its overseer, and extensive government auditing experience for the auditor, which fortunately Richardson had.
Richardson has served Bay Area transit riders and taxpayers admirably under the circumstances. She has hung in there as long as anyone could expect. As for her successor, under the current law, that's up to the BART board members and Newsom, who have shown no sign they are interested in the independent oversight voters demanded four years ago.