Gerber, Murphy Named to Transit Board

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.


  1. December 31, 2012 at 5:59 pm | permalink

    My picks were Nacht and Gerber. Murph is certainly knowledgeable and well-qualified professionally, but I’m not sure that a person who has been involved in crafting such a structure has the distance to be able to deal with day-to-day conflicts and practicalities of merging so many entities. In other words, he may be too much of a true believer.

    And then there is the employment conflict. Thank you for your careful reporting of the process.

  2. By David Cahill
    December 31, 2012 at 6:01 pm | permalink

    Shucks! I only batted 50% on my predictions.

  3. By Alan Goldsmith
    January 1, 2013 at 6:36 am | permalink

    Conan Smith, once again, proves himself to be a political hack, beholden to forces other than from his own Ann Arbor district and Washtenaw County. I’m sure sure Governor Snyder and Bob Ficano are having another good laugh over this manipulation of the puppet strings. Nice conflict of interest representation of his day job interests. And nice photo op for his spouse, smiling away in the background, during the Governor’s signing of the RTA last week too. Thanks Ms. Warren. Nice move covering for the political future of the ‘next’ County Board Chair as well.

  4. January 1, 2013 at 10:23 am | permalink

    Conan Smith has demonstrated a persistent disregard for any sense of propriety. Apparently, every member of his advisory committee “expressed some concern about [his] relationship with [Mr. Murphy] and the impact that might have on local partnerships and the potential conflict of interest it could represent.” Yet he appointed this personal friend and professional colleague over those objections. His efforts to try to remove the appearance of conflicts only serves to emphasize the substance of the concerns expressed by his advisors.

    This brief report implies that Mr. Murphy was not favored by any of the advisory committee members. One must wonder why Mr. Smith needed an advisory committee if he was going to ignore their recommendations. Was the purpose of the committee to give the process an appearance of legitimacy?

    Professor Gerber seems highly qualified. I hope the manner in which Mr. Smith conducted this process does not reflect poorly on her or on the members of the advisory committee. Hopefully the next Chair of the County Board of Commissioners will learn something about the appearance of propriety from this sad episode.

    While Mr. Murphy seems well acquainted with transit issues, I hope he understands that his friend’s self dealing does not help his own reputation. The new RTA will accomplish little during 2013. Other members of the Board may not be appointed for months, the RTA has no authority over state and federal funds until the new fiscal year (October) and Mr. Murphy’s term ends in December. The state legislature may yet remove Washtenaw County from the RTA. Mr. Murphy may want to consider withdrawing from this position, just to help the reputation of his friend and himself.

  5. January 1, 2013 at 11:00 am | permalink

    Professor Gerber has indicated that she is organizing a simulation of regional transit using quite a few people at the UM in the near future. I hope now that she will be representing us, the results of that simulation will be published in an accessible fashion. It should be interesting, both as a theoretical study and as an indication of how she may conduct her duties on this board.

  6. By Mary Morgan
    January 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm | permalink

    Re. Gerber’s regional transit simulation: Our earlier report on the RTA board applicants [link] included this description of the event:

    In her application’s cover letter, Gerber reports that she has been organizing “a large-scale role-playing simulation” involving 150 masters students at UM’s Ford School, to be held over a three-day period in January 2013. “The topic of the simulation is regional transit in Southeast Michigan. Specifically, the students will take the perspectives of diverse decision-makers and stakeholders at the state, regional and local levels involved in the RTA. Now that the legislation has passed, their task will be to consider questions of governance, implementation, and funding. Over 30 experts are scheduled to participate in the event, including Governor Snyder.”

    During her Dec. 27 interview with the selection panel, Gerber indicated that both Conan Smith and Michael Ford would be participating in the exercise.

    Since the previous simulations going back through 2003 have been documented online – for example, see the 2012 simulation on U.S.-Mexico border policy here [link] – I assume the upcoming regional transit simulation will also be available at some point.

  7. January 1, 2013 at 8:37 pm | permalink

    Thanks, yes, I was depending on your report for my comments. Anxious to hear how it goes.