Over the past few weeks, thanks to Reinvent Albany’s lengthy report on MTA reform [pdf], I’ve been thinking a lot about the structure and role the MTA Board plays in agency governance. When you really drill down on it, you can easily reach the conclusion that the MTA Board is a meaningless entity designed for one thing and one thing only — giving the Governor of New York apparent cover for all matters MTA and serving as a convenient whipping boy when things go wrong.
Think about it: What exactly does the MTA Board do? It doesn’t hire or fire any part of the MTA management. The governor does, through his appointment of the MTA Chair and CEO (and approval of any agency president or other high-profile hires). It doesn’t negotiate contracts. It doesn’t set policy. It doesn’t develop a budget. It simply votes — up or down — on initiatives prepared by MTA staffers, who are all under the purview of gubernatorial appointees. Sometimes, the MTA Board raises a question or two and delays a vote for want of information, but the Board doesn’t and can’t shape policy. Ultimately, the Board just rubber-stamps major procurements and other initiatives put in front of it by the governor or those acting on his behalf.
Take, for example, the recent hullabaloo over overtime spending. It seems likely that some of the LIRR overtime accrual is the result of fraud that should be prosecuted, but most of the overtime spending at non-LIRR agencies and at New York City Transit in particular is a direct result of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Subway Action Plan and ongoing emergency order. As I detailed in a post on this subject in May, the Subway Action Plan and the Governor’s insistence on pushing through everything as fast as possible led to a huge spike in overtime spending.
By itself, that’s fine. The subways needed to be blitzed by repair work, and while I still believe Save Safe Seconds has had more of an impact on improved subway performance than the action plan, the action plan has helped (for example, by focusing on basics such as clearing out clogged drains). But Cuomo has been so obsessed with overtime spending that he can’t or won’t focus on the good overtime vs. the bad overtime. It’s all just a negative to him, and so he’s pushing through his own plan to combat overtime, exposing the MTA Board for the empty vessel it is.
During last month’s contentious meeting, most of the board members overruled the objections of Larry Schwartz, Cuomo’s enforcer on the MTA Board, to turn down a request for the agency to hire a prosecutor to investigate fraud. These board members instead recommended a consultant to help the MTA reform its time-and-attendance practice while relying upon the new MTA Inspector General (appointed by Cuomo) and the proper state or county Attorneys General to prosecute the fraud. But that led to one disgruntled governor, and so he went to work.
As Dana Rubinstein reported for Politico New York last week, Cuomo simply overruled the MTA Board and decided that the agency will hire a former prosector to investigate overtime abuses anyway. As Rubinstein notes, Carrie Cohen, the Morrison & Foerster partner who will be approved next week, will cover similar ground as the new MTA IG, and those who opposed the appointment initially weren’t happy. “This was all debated once and defeated,” John Samuelsen, TWU International president and MTA Board member, said to Rubinstein. “This has now become an example of, ‘If I don’t get my way the first time, we’re going to ram it down throats anyway.’”
Cuomo is a master at this type of exploitation, and he’s using the overtime scandal to dubious ends. Following the appointment of the new MTA IG and a subsequent tampering of a time-tracker at an LIRR office, another time clock was damaged, this time at a New York City Transit facility. Cuomo lumped the incidents together, but I’ve since been told by multiple MTA sources that the second incident was an accident. Furthermore, it impacted a time clock used by managers and not rank-and-file who are accused of running the overtime fraud. Cuomo, in public statements, claimed they were all related, and this may be another part of his unnecessary and one-sided battle with Andy Byford. I’ll come back to motive shortly.
Meanwhile, Cuomo is barely even trying to hide the way he’s manipulating the MTA. Take the makeup of the Board. We know Cuomo controls the plurality of Board seats, for what that’s worth when discussing a rubber-stamp organization, and lately, he’s taken to making the most of it. Word recently emerged that Cuomo was looking to name Albany-based state budget director Robert Mujica and Linda Lacewell, the current nominee for Superintendent of the New York State Department of Financial Services, to the Board, but the governor doesn’t currently have two seats to fill.
The Post got to the bottom of things: Reportedly, Michael Lynton, confirmed to the MTA just this spring, will be (or has been) booted from the Board, allegedly for being too independent. Fernando Ferrer will also be leaving his post. Replacing Lynton with Mujica will require the state legislature to waive residency requirements, and it’s not at first clear why they should. Is Mujica that important to the MTA Board for the legislature to waive these requirements in a last-minute hearing this week or next? If they do waive these requirements, what’s stopping Cuomo from naming upstate allies to a downstate board anyway?
Cuomo, in a radio appearance on Alan Chartock’s show last week, claimed Lynton’s independence had nothing to do with the move. Said the governor to his pal on WAMC:
Michael Lynton, when I put him on, the need was to bring new tech firms into the MTA sphere because the MTA keeps contracting with these bad contractors who I believe they have an incestuous relationship with. And the new issue became these, over the past couple of weeks, the US attorney’s investigation the Queens DA in vandalism of time and attendance systems. So, the way a coach will shift players depending on what’s happening on the court, basketball, and the need Michael Lynton, who’s great, and is from the tech world and I think that bringing new tech vendors. Today the need is financial expertise, anti-fraud systems. So I switched for the state budget director, who is a financial wizard, in my opinion, and can safeguard the state money and the Department of Financial Services commissioner who is a former federal prosecutor and is very good on financial fraud. It had nothing to do with Fernando Ferrer or Michael Lynton, who are both great, I’m going to put them on other boards.
But this move isn’t an innocent one. In a long and rambling statement released during the height of the L train debate in January, Mujica called for full gubernatorial control of the MTA Board. It was a bit of a sleight of hand since, as I’ve detailed above, the governor already controls the management and operations of the MTA, but you can see why and how Cuomo is stacking the board with third-term loyalists. These appointees play fast and loose with their own financial disclosure requirements and may not even live in the MTA service area. This doesn’t strike me as a shift toward better governance.
So back to the question of motive. For all of these machinations, maneuvers and public misdirections, I’m hard-pressed to figure out what Cuomo is after and why. He may, as has been loudly discussed in transit circles over the past few weeks, be looking to push out those who are outside of his circle and who get credit for good work they do. He may be leaning on the MTA, a prominent organization and one that plays a large role in the city and state, as a way to reward those still loyal to him after nearly nine years in office. He may simply have it in his head that he can fix things. But as with many areas, his moves seem to be responsive and reactive rather than proactive, and he’s not attacking the roots of the MTA’s many problems (or allowing those who can free rein to operate).
The MTA sits on the edge of a cliff, and one push in the wrong direction can send everyone and everything tumbling off it yet again. Is Cuomo chipping away at the foundation or building a stronger one? I lean toward the former but wish for the latter, and I don’t know why or where it all goes from here.