Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board meeting (Feb. 17, 2010): Although little business was transacted by the board during Wednesday’s meeting, members engaged in what David Nacht called a “healthy conversation” on the subject of the treasurer’s report. At issue was whether the agenda should contain a slot for the report.
The discussion began with a gentle ribbing of the board’s treasurer, Ted Annis, who was asked: “Have your feelings been hurt?” It ended, however, with a serious philosophical discussion about the difference between a body consisting of appointed board members compared to one composed of elected officials.
Over the next few months, the board will begin a conversation in earnest to change its meeting location to the Ann Arbor District Library and its time to Thursday evenings.
A development not explicitly discussed at the board meeting, but nonetheless connected to it, is the fact that the AATA will begin providing board packets in their native digital text – until now, the documents have been available in electronic form, but only as image scans.
The question of the treasurer’s report prompted a conversation that eventually led CEO Michael Ford to agree with board member David Nacht’s description of it as “healthy.”
Treasurer’s Report: Background
Coinciding with the October start of the AATA’s fiscal year, at its September 2009 meeting the board engaged in the annual exercise of electing new officers. That included election of board member Ted Annis as treasurer.
Since taking over as treasurer, Annis has submitted one-page treasurer’s reports:
- Treasurer’s report: Oct. 29, 2009
- Treasurer’s report: Dec. 8, 2009
- Treasurer’s report: Jan. 11, 2010
The October report focused on the budget context within which a consultant should work – the consultant would design a countywide transit system. The December report focused on transparency issues, with specific recommendations to increase the kind and quality of information available on the AATA website, and a recommendation to change the venue of the board meetings. The January report recommended the hiring of a chief financial officer.
Annis was unable to attend the January 2010 board meeting due to illness. But in an email sent to CEO Michael Ford and cc-ed to other board members before that meeting took place, he expressed some frustration that the January treasurer’s report was not part of the board packet:
Board packet arrived today, no Treasurer’s Report included. (Note that I sent it to you and the Board on 11 Jan, see below.) Please update the Board packet.
Second time this has happened.
Treasurer’s Report: Discussion
At Wednesday’s meeting, then, Annis broached the topic by asking that the treasurer’s report be put back on each month’s agenda. Responding to David Nacht’s “Have your feelings been hurt?” ribbing, Annis deadpanned: “I’m the treasurer, I don’t have feelings.”
Though Ford said he took responsibility for the issue, board chair Paul Ajegba put the responsibility on the board’s governance committee, which includes Ajegba.
[Per the AATA board bylaws, the governance committee includes the board chair (Paul Ajegba), and chairs of the other board committees (Jesse Bernstein, who chairs the performance monitoring and external relations committee; and Rich Robben, who chairs the planning and development committee), plus the "executive director," which is Michael Ford. The job title for Ford is actually CEO, but previously his position had been called "executive director."]
After Ajegba said that the governance committee had discussed the matter, Annis took Ajegba’s remarks to indicate that the treasurer’s report would be included in future board agendas. Annis noted, “The bylaws require the treasurer to make a report, so if we’re putting it back, good.”
However, Ajegba resisted committing to that, saying that they would be included “as needed.” Annis stated, “That’s not what the bylaws say.”
The board chair prior to Ajegba, David Nacht, then weighed in, declaring, “I have something to say about this.” Nacht noted that the board had transitioned to a working style where the material considered by the whole board had been worked through at a committee level – it had been vetted in some sense by the committee process. There was, Nacht said, some sense of consensus that developed on matters brought before the whole board. Continuing, Nacht noted that Annis’ reports had been substantive, and to some extent that could be seen as undermining the ability of the committees to do their part.
That being said, cautioned Nacht, there is a reason for the treasurer’s report in the bylaws – it’s supposed to be more than just a dollars-and-cents accounting, and the treasurer should have the ability to report directly to the board. It all depended, Nacht said, on what the report includes: Is it more philosophical or is it more dollars and cents? To the extent that the content of the treasurer’s report amounted to a dissenting opinion on board policy, Nacht said, it shouldn’t come in the form of a treasurer’s report.
Annis, as he listened to Nacht, stated: “I’m not in agreement with what I’m hearing.”
Ajegba confirmed that the concerns and issues outlined by Nacht had reflected the thinking of the governance committee. Annis objected to that way of thinking, describing it as too restrictive. He said that his report ought not to disappear and that it should not be suppressed: “I think you ought to suck it up and listen to it.”
Jesse Bernstein, who serves on the governance committee, said they had not suppressed anything. The treasurer submits a report, Bernstein said, and the question is how do they implement the treasurer’s communication. Ajegba added, “We’re not trying to censor.” Bernstein appeared to make a gambit at reconciling differences by saying, “We’ve got to get this clear among all of us.”
Annis again appealed to the board’s bylaws: “If you don’t want to hear from the treasurer, change the bylaws.” Nacht said he didn’t think it was true that the bylaws needed changing. In addition to the financial data – How much did we spend? – there was room for comment that is fairly included in a treasurer’s report, said Nacht.
Annis, alluding to the fact that Nacht is an attorney, said, “Counselor, let me read from the bylaws: ‘The Treasurer shall submit to the Board, and comment on, …’” Annis stopped at that point, but Rich Robben, who also serves on the governance committee, prompted him to continue: “On what?” Annis then finished the sentence: “… monthly budget-expenditure reports prepared by management.”
Bernstein again made a gambit to reconcile, suggesting to Annis that “you and I sit down and come up with the best way to do this to make sure comments are shared.” Annis replied: “Do you want to hear an independent treasurer’s report?” Bernstein’s answer: “I want us to be a team.” Bernstein said he wanted to maximize board and staff time to get solutions.
Annis then acknowledged Bernstein’s effort to reconcile, saying, “We don’t have to beat it up any more at this point.” Nacht summed up by calling it a “healthy conversation.”
Nacht then offered a comparison between the AATA board and the mayor and city council as playing a “watchdog role” for citizens. Where the two bodies differed, cautioned Nacht, was in the fact that the AATA board was not a legislative body: “No one elected us to express an opinion. We’re a governing board.” Nacht said he tried to look out for riders who use the bus system not by choice, but that fundamentally the role of the board was to govern. And governing, Nacht declared, “is a communal activity.”
CEO’s Reaction to Treasurer’s Report Discussion and More
On the heels of the board discussion of the treasurer’s report, Nacht asked CEO Michael Ford for his broad impression of the AATA after having been on the job for a little more than a half a year – Nacht said he’d not told Ford he was going to ask him that.
Ford began by citing the discussion that they’d just had on the topic of the treasurer’s report, characterizing it as “healthy.”
Continuing, Ford said that the AATA staff is geared up to do a lot of work and that there is a lot more work to do, based on the challenges he’d heard outlined in a visit to the state capitol that day. In remarks made earlier in the evening, Ford had said he’d been to Lansing and had met with State Rep. Pam Byrnes (D-District 52) to discuss ways to secure funding. Among the topics they discussed was the gas/diesel tax. She was, Ford reported, interested in the AATA’s efforts to expand service countywide. He would be returning to Lansing the following morning to have breakfast with State Sen. Liz Brater (D-District 18).
Ford continued his response to Nacht’s question by saying that he kept in mind a question that Paul Ajegba had asked his job interview: What will you do if you don’t succeed? Ford’s answer could be summed up in a sentence, as “I’ll keep trying.”
The relevant excerpt from The Chronicle’s coverage of that April 22, 2009 interview:
Paul Ajegba: Michael, we are currently a bus organization. We are trying to integrate rail into our organization. Everything seems to be on track – no pun intended – to make that happen. If for whatever reason, politically or financially, it does not happen, how would you feel about that?
Michael Ford: Well, I don’t think I would give up. I think the important thing is that the project and the focus makes sense. I came from an organization, for example, TriMet is pretty well-known for its service. But the big thing in working with my former boss, Fred Hansen, who is the general manager there, is that he was able through his relationships to get funding, to get money. The last budget that President Bush had, three of the four projects were funded in Oregon, because of some diligence. To answer your question, I wouldn’t want to just give in to that. I would look at other alternatives, look at what else we could do. Maybe the timing won’t be right. But I think if we’re going to address the needs of Ann Arbor and the region we are going to have to get to that point. So I think we need to continue the discussions and all that. I don’t know if I would just feel defeated at that point. I just feel like I would keep trying and finding ways to do that.
Paul Ajegba: Even if it is beyond your control?
Michael Ford: Well, if it is beyond my control, in terms of just can’t get it done?
Paul Ajegba: As I said for political reasons or for financial reasons or for regional issues that you can’t have anything to do with, even if you can get money from Washington, but because the stakeholders are not coming together to make it happen, how would you feel about that?
Michael Ford: Well, I would be concerned. And I would be still looking to see what we could still do to try to make it happen. [...] I think that being able to carry a message of why this is important in getting other relationships and other people and other agencies to help support what you are doing and leveraging that is the best you can do. No, I would probably feel somewhat disappointed it didn’t happen.
Annis followed up Nacht’s question on Wednesday with a question about Ford’s goals and objectives. Ford indicated that he had been asked to run his set of goals and objectives through the board’s committees again, and he was doing that. Annis said he’d submitted suggestions for goals and objectives, and that if it turned out they did not “make the final cut” that he would like to know why.
Accessibility and Transparency
As noted, the December treasurer’s report focused on transparency and accessibility issues. The board discussed one possible step to be taken in that direction: moving its monthly meeting location from the AATA headquarters on South Industrial Ave. Another step was not mentioned at the meeting: creation of native digital board packets.
Accessibility: Board Meeting Time and Location
Reporting out from the performance monitoring and external relations committee, Jesse Bernstein said that the committee recommended moving the board’s meeting location to the downtown location of the Ann Arbor District Library. The advantage of the location, Bernstein said, was that it offered an opportunity to record the event for broadcast later on CTN – Community Television Network. Due to scheduling issues, he said, it would not be possible to make the broadcast live. However, he was looking at the possibility that live streaming could be made available on the internet.
A key part of the move would include a timing change. Instead of the third Wednesday of every month, Bernstein said, it would be necessary to switch to Thursday. He said the committee recommended that implementation not come until two months after a final decision had been made – that would allow sufficient time to alert the community.
Board chair Paul Ajegba noted that the change would require a change in the bylaws, and asked if the local advisory council had any concerns about the change. Michael Ford reported that he had reached out to the LAC to discuss their concerns about accessibility. The idea that the LAC might have accessibility concerns about the Ann Arbor District Library was puzzling to Nacht, who asked simply, “Why?”
Karen Wheeler, executive assistant with the AATA, clarified that there was concern about crossing the street, from the Blake Transit Center to the library, which is related in part to the construction project next to the library. With the former surface parking lot unavailable – the city is building an underground parking structure on what’s known as the Library Lot – there’s no place to park that would not entail crossing a street.
During public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Jim Mogensen weighed in on the topic by asking specifically: “Where will everyone park?” He noted that there was a certain element of irony that this would be a concern about a meeting of a transit authority board. But he noted that a number of AATA staff would need to find their way to the meeting, in addition to the board members and the public.
Also speaking during public commentary, Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living clarified that drop-offs and pick-ups for para-transit are difficult at that location. She asked if the CTN studios, across the street from AATA headquarters, was a possibility. Bernstein shook his head, no.
The board did not have an item on its agenda to make a decision on moving the board meeting time and location, and did not take action on Wednesday.
Accessibility: Board Packets
AATA board packets have been available as scanned image documents for some time.
The work flow for stitching together a single electronic file containing scanned images for the board packet is to take the assembled physical paper documents and feed them through a copy machine, which automatically scans them and creates a PDF file. In the future, the single electronic file will be created by knitting together the original electronic files using Adobe Acrobat.
Starting next month, board packets be available as native digital documents on the AATA website. Last month’s file was created retroactively – on the website it’s labeled as “Searchable Board Packet.”
The difference between the two electronic formats is the difference between having a picture of words, and actually having the words. Among the disadvantages of scanned images:
- They’re not machine searchable – it’s just a picture of text, not actual digital text.
- For vision-impaired people, who use a screen reader, there’s no text to read.
- The size of the resulting files is huge, thus slowing down access.
- Use of information from such files requires re-typing, instead of just copying and pasting.
The move to digital text will eliminate those disadvantages.
The board had before it a resolution authorizing an increase in the contract with the vendor (CJI) who was to perform a series of three different surveys for AATA. The AATA had a grant from the Michigan Department of Transportation for up to $120,000 to cover the three surveys: one in Washtenaw County, one in Livingston County, and one conducted on board the buses. The Washtenaw County survey of voter attitudes is complete, and results were presented at the last AATA board meeting. The on-board survey is also complete. Not yet done is the Livingston County survey.
The amount originally contracted was $96,000, which falls below the $100,000 mark – above that amount, the board must authorize the expenditure. The increase to $108,000 is explained this way in the board packet:
The [city manager] of Howell, Shea Charles, is responsible for coordinating the Livingston County survey. The survey was supposed to be conducted at the same time as the Washtenaw County survey, but was delayed because it took a long time for [city manager] Charles to gain local agreement on the questionnaire and the format. That finally occurred in January.
There is significant additional cost to CJI to conduct the two telephone surveys separately.
At first, the board members misunderstood the increase to be from $100,000 to $108,000, which caused Ted Annis to conclude that the overage was under 10%, so he was okay with that. On clarification that the increase was actually from $96,000 to $108,000, Annis allowed that it exceeded 10%, “but not by much.”
David Nacht said he’d found the presentation at the previous month’s board meeting of the survey results to be “unusually sound.”
Speaking during public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting, Jim Mogensen expressed his hope that the survey results for the other two surveys – the on-board survey and the Livingston County survey – would also be presented at a subsequent board meeting. He also said it was interesting that Livingston County officials had pre-approved the questions. An interesting question for the board to ask the vendor, suggested Mogensen, would be: What questions would you have preferred to ask?
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the increase in the contract for the survey work to $108,000.
Local Advisory Committee Charge
At recent board meetings, Rebecca Burke, chair of AATA’s local advisory council, has indicated that LAC would be bringing a request to update the language of the LAC charge – words like “handicapped” needed to be replaced with “disabled.” On Wednesday, the board approved updates to the language. LAC is a body focused on advocacy for seniors and those with disabilities. From the LAC bylaws:
1. To provide input, review and comment on the Vehicle Accessibility Plan as required by the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT).
2. To generate discussion, interpretation, and recommendations to the Board regarding any senior adults and persons with disabilities related issues of a significant nature.
3. To work with the AATA staff as directed by the AATA Board toward the achievement of the organization’s goals and objectives.
4. To report regularly to the AATA Board of Directors the activities, actions and recommendations of the Council.
Outcome: The board unanimously approved the change to the LAC charge.
Other Public Commentary
Carolyn Grawi of the Center for Independent Living (CIL) reported that the bus service in one direction into Research Park Drive, where CIL is located, had been running for a month and it was wonderful. She thanked the AATA, the city of Ann Arbor, Pittsfield Township, and the county road commission for their cooperation in getting the service put in. Now the challenge, she said, was to get service in the other direction as well.
Grawi also told the board that the next Annual Developmental Disabilities Conference was coming up in April and that it was important to get someone from the AATA to attend.
Thomas Partridge told the board that he’d arrive late [as public commentary at the conclusion of the meeting was starting] due to his attendance at the second county board of commissioners meeting of the month – it always coincides with the AATA’s monthly board meeting. He suggested the county board’s chambers as a possible location for AATA meetings, pointing to the investment that had been made in technology for internet streaming and television broadcast there.
He encouraged the board to put a countywide millage on the ballot this November and not to use as excuses the general economic climate or the fact that the AATA had only recently hired a new CEO.
Present: David Nacht, Ted Annis, Jesse Bernstein, Paul Ajegba, Rich Robben
Absent: Charles Griffith, Sue McCormick
Next regular meeting: Wednesday, March 17 24, 2010 at 6:30 p.m. at AATA headquarters, 2700 S. Industrial Ave., Ann Arbor [confirm date]