Gov. Polis announces new accountability board to oversee RTD

Posted at 7:07 PM, Jun 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-18 17:45:30-04

DENVER — Governor Jared Polis and state lawmakers unveiled a plan Wednesday to create an accountability committee for the Regional Transportation District.

The committee comes after state lawmakers failed to pass a bill this session that would have created widespread reforms for the district.

Senate Bill 151 was already moving through the committee process when COVID-19 forced the legislature to recess. The bills $1.8 million fiscal note largely resulted in its postponement amid major budget shortfalls.

“Real reform is hard, we get that,” Gov. Polis said during the press conference.

The committee will be composed of 11 members, five of whom will be appointed by the governor and six of whom will be appointed by the chairs of the house and senate transportation committees. RTD’s board chair will also appoint two ex officio members.

The committee members must meet certain requirements; at least four need to be local government representatives, at least one needs to have economic development expertise, at least one needs to have expertise on issues facing transit riders with disabilities, etc.

Over the next year this independent committee will conduct a top to bottom review and recommend the steps that are needed systemically, Gov. Polis promised during the press conference.

“The work is going to include a review of recent financials and recent audits, the structure of RTD governance and leadership, a review of the short term and long term use of resources,” Gov. Polis said.

Rep. Matt Gray and Sen. Faith Winter, the chairs of the house and senate transportation committees, joined the governor during the press conference.

However, some of the key co-sponsors of SB151 say they were left out of the conversation.

Republican Senator Jack Tate told Denver7 he’s glad that there is an effort at accountability but he’s disappointed that his bill didn’t make it out of the legislature.

“I would argue that we really could have winnowed down the RTD reform efforts to a couple of statutory provisions that would’ve offered a degree of protection, understanding that the overall economic environment is difficult,” Sen. Tate said.

The most important issue Sen. Tate says he was trying to focus on through legislation is prioritizing transit-dependent communities and offering them certain rights and protections.

He also pushed for more transparency with how RTD spends it’s money, a topic he says is more important than ever after the district received $232 million in federal CARES Act money to make it through the pandemic.

However, in a board meeting Tuesday night, TRD staff presented a dismal budget outlook, projecting a $252 million budget shortfall in 2021 that will balloon to a $1.6 billion shortfall over the next six years.

The board agreed to require all non-union employees to take 9 furlough days this year to help make up some of the difference. Those furlough days will not apply to drivers and others who are protected by a union contract.

While the furlough days will help somewhat, they won’t make up all of the shortfall, meaning service cuts and layoffs could be coming.

Sen. Tate says there needs to be more transparency in RTD spending.

He says he’s hopeful that change will come out of the committee but not entirely confident that it will.

“I just don’t think at the end of the day the accountability committee will have much force in terms of making the change I think needs to happen,” Sen. Tate said.

He’s also questioning whether the committee will be truly independent in able to be able to offer

“Independent oversights is very important but there’s different kinds of independent oversight,” he said. “This committee my understanding is it includes a lot of entities that are kind of part of RTD. In a way, they’re stakeholders of RTD and therefore they have their own agendas.”

He’s hoping lawmakers will come up with new legislation next session to address some of the issues the committee hasn’t addressed.

Despite this, Sen. Faith Winter promised the committee would be truly independent and that the findings would be made public.

All the lawmakers agreed that RTD’s first priority will be restoring trust with the community.

“They know that they have a lot of work ahead to rebuild the trust of the people that they serve,” Gov. Polis said.

The committee will be appointed by July 15 and will host its first meeting on July 31. It will then meet for a year afterward to review the district and come up with recommendations.

A preliminary review is expected in December and the final report is due by July 1, 2021. The committee will then have the option to extend its work by another year.