Eric Lupher is president of the Citizens Research Council, which provides factual, unbiased information on significant issues concerning state and local government organization and finance.
Many people expect that the Regional Transit Authority (RTA) will try a second time in the November 2018 general election to gain voter approval for a millage to fund rail, bus rapid transit, and other transit services in Southeast Michigan.
I am not privy to any analysis that the RTA or others may have conducted following the November 8, 2016 election to know how others interpreted that millage rejection. Others may have looked at voters voicing displeasure with the type of tax proposed, the campaign’s failure to adequately communicate the benefits to the region of a vibrant transit system, or the region’s divisive political and racial history.
I suggest that another element should be part of the analysis: Voters may have rejected the idea of a tax levied by a special authority governed by an appointed Board of Directors that does not represent every taxpayer in the four-county region equally and for which there would be minimal accountability.
We are all familiar with counties, cities, villages, and townships as local government service providers. These governments enact ordinances, provide a number of services, and levy taxes to fund those services. These units of government operate under similar governance systems based on the concepts of representative democracy: popularly-elected representatives, representing groups of people, charged with making public policy decisions.
These governance systems, with the ability to elect officials who represent the wishes of the majority of voters provide accountability in general units of government. Since the 1960s, courts have required that the elections of government officials incorporate the “one person, one vote” principle in which the officials serve districts nearly equal in population.
However, the “one person, one vote” standard has not been extended to Michigan’s vast array of special authorities. Until now, this has mattered little because most special authorities do not directly levy taxes, but instead simply carry out tasks as collaborative actions among two or more counties, cities, villages, or townships.
Michigan law provides that two or more local governments may collectively provide a service where they have the authority to do so individually. This collaboration across municipal boundaries often involves one or more governments paying another to provide a service, consultation among the employees of collaborating entities, and the prudent use of public resources to achieve economies of scale in service provision. State law specifically authorizes that single-purpose special authorities may be created for activities such as public safety, transportation, libraries, parks and recreation, ports, and airports, among other services.
The RTA is different. It is not the product of voluntary collaboration, but a legislatively created special authority. Although organized to serve a single purpose, the Board of Directors has much broader power than is the case for many special authorities. This includes the ability to acquire property, raise taxes to fund activities, and issue debt.
Additionally, the RTA’s governance model is unique. The RTA is governed by a Board of Directors consisting of 10 members. A non-voting representative of the state chairs the board, and nine voting members are appointed by Detroit (one member) and Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne counties (two members each). While simple majorities are needed for most board decisions, there must be a super majority vote, including at least one representative of each county and the representative of Detroit, to place a millage on the ballot.
This governance structure, along with the rules under which it must operate, was designed to serve certain political goals within the four-county RTA region, rather than ensure equal representation of all people living in the region.
With this board structure and with these vote requirements for specific actions, it is possible for the two representatives of Washtenaw County (as an example), which makes up one-fifth of the board but represents only nine percent of the RTA’s population, to disallow a policy change even if the rest of the board approves it. The large geographies and populations represented by relatively few appointed board members from each participant also may leave many parts of the counties and/or the City of Detroit feeling that their preferences are not reflected in the actions of the representatives.
The governance structure of special authorities, such as the RTA, raises concerns about equal representation and accountability when these bodies represent local governments instead of people, especially when an authority has broad policymaking, borrowing, and taxing power.
To address this issue would require the legislature to amend the law that created the RTA and any other laws authorizing special authorities with police and taxing powers.
We recognize that adhering to the “one person, one vote” principle could change the dynamics of special authority governance. If special authorities represent people rather than local governments, it could lead to more partisan boards that are less connected to the local governments within the region, but more connected to the people.
Additionally, popularly elected board members may not possess the expertise that appointed officials are likely to possess. Still, accountability of government officials to the people being served, a core value in our democracy, should not be compromised for the sake of political expediency.
For more on this topic, see Questions About the Governance of Regional Authorities in Michigan