Liz Gerber and Richard “Murph” Murphy have been appointed to represent Washtenaw County on the new southeast Michigan regional transit authority board. Gerber lives in Ann Arbor and is a professor at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy. Murphy is an Ypsilanti resident and programs director for the Michigan Suburbs Alliance.
The appointments were made by Conan Smith, chair of the Washtenaw County board of commissioners – who also serves as executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. Smith announced his decision in a Dec. 31 email time-stamped 4:45 p.m.
Dec. 31 is the final day of Smith’s term as chair of the county board, and as such is the last day that he would be able to make the appointments. [.pdf of Smith's email] [.pdf of Smith's announcement to the board of commissioners]
Gerber and Murphy were among five candidates who had been interviewed by a selection committee on Thursday, Dec. 27. The committee included three county commissioners – Smith and Yousef Rabhi of Ann Arbor, and Rolland Sizemore Jr. of Ypsilanti Township – as well as Michael Ford, CEO of Ann Arbor Transportation Authority; Bill Milliken Jr. of Milliken Realty Co. and son of former Gov. Bill Milliken; and Carolyn Grawi, director of advocacy and education at the Ann Arbor Center for Independent Living. The interviews and committee deliberations, held at the county’s Learning Resource Center at 4135 Washtenaw Ave., were open to the public and attended by The Chronicle.
Smith had announced his intent to seek applications for the RTA board on Dec. 14, with a deadline of Dec. 21 to apply and interviews to be held on the morning of Dec. 27. Of the 18 applications received, five finalists were interviewed. In addition to Gerber and Murphy, finalists included David Nacht, a Scio Township resident, local attorney and a current board member of the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority; former Ann Arbor city councilmember Wendy Woods; and John Waterman, a Saline resident and founder of the nonprofit Programs to Educate All Cyclists (PEAC).
Based on deliberations held after the interviews, which The Chronicle attended, the selection committee’s clear favorites had appeared to be Nacht, Gerber or possibly Woods. Murphy was mentioned by only one committee member – as a possibility for the citizens advisory body that the RTA board will eventually appoint.
In his announcement of the appointments, Smith addressed concerns that have been raised about conflicts of interest with the appointment of Murphy, who works for Smith. From Smith’s email: “Each of you expressed some concern about my relationship with Murph and the impact that might have on local partnerships and the potential conflict of interest it could represent. I want you to know that he and I both struggled over those issues. Ultimately, it is my opinion that Murph has an unmatched skillset that is particularly useful in launching the RTA. However, we are together taking two actions that I hope will mitigate some of the discomfort. First, Murph has agreed that we will alter his employment arrangement at the Suburbs Alliance. My board of directors there will contract with him and remove him from my line of authority. He will report directly to them and not to me – this will formalize the peer relationship we already share. Second, we have agreed that it is best that he be appointed to the one-year term. This will give Yousef and the rest of our friends in the transit community a chance to assess his independence and effectiveness before deciding if he should continue his service for a longer period.”
By reporting directly to the board of directors of the Suburbs Alliance, Murphy would be reporting to a body made up almost entirely of elected or hired officials of municipalities outside Washtenaw County. And the two board members who don’t fit that category do not appear to have any professional ties to Washtenaw County. In discussing an altered employment arrangment during his interview, Murphy allowed that a perception of a conflict of interest would likely persist, whatever the nature of his employment relationship is with the Suburbs Alliance.
Murphy’s one-year term runs through Dec. 31, 2013. Gerber’s three-year term ends on Dec. 31, 2015.
The transit authority was created earlier this month by the lame duck legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on Dec. 19. It includes the city of Detroit and counties of Wayne, Macomb, Oakland and Washtenaw, and is intended to coordinate regional public transportation initiatives. The governing board will consist of two appointees from each county, one appointee from Detroit, and one non-voting member appointed by the governor. None of the other members of the RTA have made appointments – they have about 90 days to do so.
The accelerated schedule of the Washtenaw appointments came after a unanimous vote of the Ann Arbor city council on Dec. 10, 2012 requesting that the state legislature amend the law to exclude Washtenaw County from the initial area of the RTA. That amendment is something that state representative Jeff Irwin (D-53) has indicated to The Chronicle that he’ll be working on in the coming year.