By Steven Tavares.
Steve Heminger, the executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) said his staff pleaded against him showing a rather ominous circle graph comparing the agency’s $945 million annual budget versus the relatively minuscule $27 million operating budget of the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), a group which until Wednesday was at his mercy. “We’re like the Death Star,” Heminger said of the graphical representation, “and ABAG is the rebel planet fighting for freedom.”
The remark may have been tone-deaf, but not entirely surprising for an executive who’s personality is described as “snarky” by his most friendly supporters and an absolute jerk, to say the least, by his enemies. One Oakland elected official called Heminger’s plan to withhold funding for the ABAG as “heavy-handed” if they did not acquiesce to MTC’s wishes to absorb 13 of their planners under the guise of a long-sought merger of the two agencies.
Most elected officials believe a full merger is a prudent move given the number of redundancies inherent in each body and the opportunity to cut costs. MTC and ABAG are also both set to soon move into new digs in San Francisco, which also caused significant rancor, in part, because of its hefty $256 million price tag. Funding for the purchase and remodeling of the building comes from bridge toll receipts.
However, Heminger likely overreached by rushing to grab ABAG’s planners now while MTC thinks about a proper merger later. Even during Wednesday’s four-hour discussion Heminger maintained his stance that the so-called “integration” of planners should be the initial step before studying the efficacy of a full merger. But, following a spate of negative press and an up swell of resistance from public officials around the Bay Area, in addition, to labor union, changes to the proposal was offered and unanimously approved by the MTC Wednesday afternoon.
The new plan calls for MTC and ABAG to jointly fund and seek a consultant to analyze a possible merger beginning in July 2016. Several MTC representatives such as Alameda County Supervisor Scott Haggerty expressed surprise by the respectful tone of Wednesday’s hearing. Comity could be fleeting, though, as discord among officials on both the MTC and ABAG boards has been noteworthy over this issue, but also historical. The sheer size and diversity of nine Bay Area counties involved in these agencies typically causes each agency problems. Smaller cities grumble over the power of larger ones and outer Bay Area counties, particularly north of Alameda and San Francisco Counties share far less progressive values. On another level, many smaller cities fear crossing Heminger and his dictatorial edicts, several sources said Wednesday. “They’re scared Heminger will take away funding for their transportation projects,” a source said of smaller municipalities.
Most admit not knowing exactly how a combined MTC/ABAG would look like. While MTC is a statutory agency obviously focused on transportation, including the new Bay Bridge debacle, ABAG is a voluntary quasi-political body with an emphasis on land-use planning. It is within the context of Plan Bay Area, the 30-year regional planning initiative that the agencies strongly intersect. You can’t plan for the influx of new Bay Area residents over the next three decades without the happy marriage of high-density housing and much-improved access to transportation. Heminger gambling with the very early stage planning studies for Plan Bay Area by withholding funding for ABAG was very disconcerting for some public officials I spoke with Wednesday.
The level of concern appears to have miraculously burned off over the past eight days following the Oakland City Council’s resolution to oppose what they termed as Heminger’s “hostile takeover” bid of ABAG. Earlier in the morning Wednesday, ABAG’s executive council unanimously approved the new language later approved by MTC. Deeming the vote a historic day for the transportation commission, Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said the initial MTC proposal may not have been the best, but the public and elected officials improved upon it. San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, who was recognized for lobbying SEIU Local 1021 to support the new proposal, said, a lack of trust is inherent between MTC and ABAG, but collaboration is needed to make the merger happen. “I don’t think we have a choice if you believe in regional government,” said Campos.
Two failed attempts at a merger over the years already lay in the wake of MTC and ABAG. “Before the discussion was no—hell no!” said Supervisor Haggerty. “It’s our fault if this merger does not happen.”