The same week legislative lawyers declared improper the Metropolitan Transportation Commission's use of bridge tolls to purchase an eight-story San Francisco building, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier introduced a bill to put the agency underneath a new, directly-elected regional board.
It's the Concord senator's latest move in his unflinching, 15-year stance that the transportation commission and other regional Bay Area agencies governed by a roster of local political appointees are out of touch with residents.
The ruling unveiled Friday by the Legislative Counsel Bureau only reaffirmed his position. He opposed the commission's purchase of the building, and since the sale has demanded the agency postpone any renovations pending the outcome of the state auditor's analysis of the transaction.
The counsel's office found that the transportation commission exceeded its authority when it used $180 million in bridge toll proceeds to buy and renovate the old U.S. Postal Service building for the purposes of relocating up to four regional agencies.
The building is far larger than needed to house the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and other potential governmental tenants -- the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, Bay Conservation and Development Commission, and possibly, the Association of Bay Area Governments. MTC planned to lease the excess space to other companies.
"When agencies become too insular, they become arrogant
MTC disagrees. The purchase was entirely legal and in keeping with the regional agencies' shared state and federal planning roles, said spokesman Randy Rentschler.
Whether or not the sale will stand is an open question. A legal opinion, on its own, cannot compel the commission to rescind the transaction. The Legislature can do it or if a lawsuit were filed, the courts could intervene.
But Oakland Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan, a vocal critic of site choice, is optimistic it will lead to a shift.
"The authority used money authorized by the state, and so it would be quite a leap of chutzpah to ignore the state's opinion," Kaplan said. "I think the commission will have to come to grips with the fact that its action wasn't legal and it will need to look at alternatives."
Whatever the outcome of the building, DeSaulnier is moving ahead with his plan to reform the nine-county Bay Area's regional governance by forming a new regional board. His bill, approved 9-0 Tuesday by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, would establish a 15-member directly-elected Bay Area Regional Commission authorized to coordinate billions of public transportation investments, housing, air quality, economic development and other regional planning tasks.
It would replace a 25-member joint advisory committee comprised of representatives from MTC and the boards of other regulatory agencies.
The dozens of elected city and county officials who serve on agency boards would remain, but the new commission would oversee operations and meld common tasks such as accounting.
It would become the second directly-elected regional board of its kind in the nation. The other is in Portland, Ore., a community hailed as a regionalism pioneer.
DeSaulnier, who sat on the MTC when he was a Contra Costa County supervisor, faces steep opposition.
Commission Chairwoman and San Mateo County Supervisor Adrienne Tissier chastised the senator in a letter, calling the proposal hasty and flawed.
And Contra Costa local elected officials reject the premise that a directly-elected board would better represent their communities.
"Is the current system perfect? No," countered commission Vice Chairwoman and Orinda Councilwoman Amy Worth. "But as cumbersome as it is, it allows the cities and counties to collaborate on issues rather than create a single board which could thwart local decisions."
Association of Bay Area Governments Vice President and Clayton Councilwoman Julie Pierce acknowledges regional agencies must do better but called an "uber-agency" a nonstarter.