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Audit faults Metro board for focus on day-to-day operations rather than strategy

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Metro’s board of directors has been too involved in the daily minutiae of running the transit agency, such as helping make decisions on seat colors and station tiles, instead of focusing on major issues such as strategic planning, according to a federal report released Thursday.

The Government Accountability Office recommends in the recently completed “performance audit” that Metro improve its strategic planning process, clearly define the responsibilities of its board of directors and regularly assess their performance.

The GAO completed the audit at the request of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who has been a harsh critic of Metro following the June 2009 Red Line crash that killed nine people.

“The release of the GAO report is an opportunity to pinpoint what Metro’s management needs to do to make sure Metro is safe and reliable, from an independent voice,” Mikulski said. “Metro should immediately consider these recommendations. They would go a long way in creating a top-down culture of safety at Metro.”

Following the accident, Metro drew widespread criticism from local, state and federal groups, who attacked the transit authority’s lack of a work culture focused on safety. Last fall, reports from the Metro Riders’ Advisory Council and a joint task force of the Greater Washington Board of Trade and the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments said Metro’s governing structure was outdated and inefficient.

The GAO report — which covers the period from September 2010 to June 2011 — depicts an agency in transition. In the two years since the Red Line accident, Metro has hired a new general manager, revamped its safety office and pursued an aggressive effort to replace aging equipment.

Many of the members on the 16-seat board of directors, which still has two vacancies, are new, and they have been tackling questions of how Metro and the board should operate.

“This new board is hard at work meeting multiple parallel demands, including improving safety and system state-of-good-repair to better serve our customers,” Metro Board Chair Catherine Hudgins said in a statement following the release of the report.

“ . . . Metro’s new board has and will continue to embrace change and advance many governance improvements that substantially strengthen our role as a regional policy and oversight organization.”

In its audit, the GAO said the Metro board’s past practices “such as infrequent meetings of the audit and investigations subcommittee and the lack of routine briefings on outside safety recommendations may have impaired the ability of the board to use information about areas in need of improvement.”

The GAO detailed several issues with Metro’s board of directors, including:

• Being involved in day-to-day operations, having what it called “excessive contact with mid-level managers” and directing staff to make changes to presentations prior to board meetings.

• Taking on management responsibilities such as hiring and firing employees and getting involved in the “approval of minor personnel policy.”

• Holding meetings too often, which several board members and Metro officials found to be “inefficient and symptomatic of a lack of a strategic focus by the board.”

• Lacking a clear understanding of “who is accountable for issues such as day-to-day management, communication, operations and safety.”

The GAO interviewed Metro’s senior management, current board members and officials from oversight agencies and local jurisdictions.

The audit credited the 14 members on the Metro board with implementing some improvements, such as creating bylaws. GAO called the bylaws a “good first step” toward addressing some of the agency’s concerns about governance. But it noted that the new policies will have to be “effectively implemented to achieve their desired effect.”

The report also said that some of the metrics Metro uses to judge its rail and train performance are outdated and that the lack of compensation for the federal board seats — two principal members and two alternates — is a deterrent to recruiting qualified candidates. The General Services Administration has appointed two principal federal members to the board and one alternate.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson wrote in a June 28 letter responding to the GAO’s report that she disagreed that her agency “cannot assure that qualified candidates are being appointed” to Metro’s board. The GSA is “currently reviewing eligible candidates,” she wrote.

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