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Two grand juries slam SMART

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Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s management and planning strategies have come under fire, as both the Marin County Civil Grand Jury and Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury released reports recently outlining problems with the organization’s operations. The reports state that there is room for improvement when it comes to transparency, utilizing a citizens oversight committee, developing plans for upcoming operations and financial planning.

But, SMART officials don’t seem too concerned by the reports. “The degree to which the grand jury’s findings is actually reflective of the general public’s perceptions of SMART is a debatable issue,” said 3rd district Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who sits on the board.

At the July 16 meeting of SMART’s board of directors, the 12-member board approved a list of responses, written by directors Barbara Pahre and Jim Eddie, to the Marin County Grand Jury’s report, which was released at the end of April. There was little discussion amongst boardmembers about their response. The report, titled “SMART — Down the Track,” commended SMART for progress with the project’s construction, as well as securing $123 million in government grants to complete the 14-station system approved by voters. However, another $230 million still needs to be secured to fund the completion of the original service plan from Cloverdale to Larkspur.

But both reports also stated that SMART has not sufficiently planned for future operations and is under-utilizing its advisory committees. The Sonoma County Grand Jury’s report, titled “The Train Has Left the Station: Five Years Later — The Outlook for SMART,” was released in June and included similar criticism of SMART’s oversight and use of committees, such as failing to establish three promised committees. Boardmember Gary Phillips, of the Transportation Authority of Marin, said the juries’ observations about the board’s operations should be taken into consideration. “This board, right or wrong, has been subjected to some degree of review and criticism by not only the Marin Grand Jury, but also Sonoma,” Phillips said. “I haven’t been on many boards where grand jury has ganged up on us twice, so I’m a little uncomfortable about that.”

Zane said SMART staff crafted appropriate responses, which mostly disagreed with the jury’s report. “We should continue to talk about our strategic plan, the role of the citizen’s oversight (committee), making sure that we align ourselves with Measure Q and the transparency issue,” Zane said. “Those are all obligations of this board regardless of what the grand jury found.”

Jack Swearengen, chair of the Friends of SMART, said his group discussed the two grand jury reports at its last meeting. He said newspaper articles and negative attention in the media are “rekindling the smoldering embers of anger against SMART.”

“We think that there is damage done,” Swearengen said. “I’m inclined to think that it deserves a response in the media, not just a quiet legal response.”

The board will approve a list of responses to the Sonoma County Grand Jury’s report at its Sept. 17 meeting. Board chair Judy Arnold, of the Marin County Board of Supervisors, proposed another meeting following that to “discuss the meat” of the issues found in both grand jury reports.

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