Civics Lesson at the BART Board Meeting

by John Gallagher | Jan 30, 2016 7:08:16 PM

I don’t know about you but I don’t often go to city council meetings, county planning boards, or forums that are meant to get input from the public.  It’s something that I know is “good for you” (like losing 5 more pounds, reading more books, or taking vitamins), but I just have never quite gotten around to it.  Well, I went this week to the board meeting of the local mass transit system (BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit) and I regret not being more engaged, more often, with such organizations.  The reason is I came away believing more deeply in basic civic principles:  individuals can make a difference, public servants often face a thankless challenge, and public policy best comes from transparent and deliberative proceedings.  I also found it’s a way to help improve physical security in my local community.

Let me start with the first point; individuals can make a difference.  I went to the meeting because something I care about (video surveillance not working) blew up in the news the last couple weeks with respect to BART.  It came to light that many of the security cameras on the trains are actually “decoys”; the BART system knew they were not working, but chose not to fix them because there was value in them being there as a deterrent.  As many people in physical security know, while deterrence is one benefit, the main reason for video surveillance is to capture video evidence and be able to remotely observe areas where security personnel can’t be.  Not surprisingly “the public” in learning this through newspaper reports reacted quite negatively, with BART subsequently deciding to make all cameras operational ASAP.  In hearing the Board’s dialogue and discussion around this what was most referenced was the direct feedback they received from constituents.  From emails, phone calls, even my 3 minutes in front of them.  The dialogue throughout the whole meeting emphasized how critical and valuable public input is (and how the BART Directors need and use it).

Another aspect of being at the board meeting was in the fundamental nature of public service as too often being a “thankless task”.  In the 6 hours of open session I was at (not to mention the following hours of closed session) there were at least 6 major issues before the Board. Each issue could likely have taken an entire days offsite at most major corporations, but the Board made it through all of them efficiently and without sacrificing scrutiny.  To me it was pretty clear why:  these people do their homework.  They were well prepared, and on major detailed policy subjects ranging from parking fees to neighborhood development to physical security technology.  As a public body I came away very impressed with their efficiently in operations and the heavy lifting each Director must do.  It really is a thankless task; because few members of the public attend these meetings there is little visibility to the efforts made.

Finally, it’s the fact that I was able to witness (and feel part of) the process of making public policy that I would recommend for more people to be involved.  I came to the meeting wanting a specific policy change to be discussed:  that when public money is spent on public safety, that there be a requirement for public reporting on how the system is doing at least on a yearly basis.  In other words, if BART is going to spend several millions of taxpayer money on a video surveillance then at least tell us once a year how it’s doing.  That way it avoids the breakdown in public trust like what happened when the public suddenly found out that their money was spent on decoys instead of surveillance.

Will my word become law now?  Of course that would be best for all involved (just kidding!).  But I know my perspective is now part of the dialogue, and as policy gets debated and formed I can learn from the discussion perspectives that I might not otherwise have.  Specifically on video surveillance (or other topics that reside at the intersection of public safety and public funding), there is not a lot of information given to the public.  I learned this week the best antidote to that is to speak up and be present – and if it’s like my experience with the BART Board of Directors you’ll come away believing more strongly that the principles of civic duty are still alive and strong.  See you at the next public hearing!

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