But recently, Columbia and Richland officials abruptly changed course. Apparently out of desperation and a lack of confidence in the transit authority, they agreed to allow Veolia Transportation to keep its contract to operate the buses for up to 15 more months and to appoint its own executive director. Veolia’s contract was supposed to end this fall, and the authority had been poised to bid the service out for the first time since it took control of the buses in 2002.

The new director would be paid by Veolia and would report to company regional vice president Mike Ake, not the transit authority board. The transit authority staff, which now answers to the board, would answer to the new Veolia director.

Some board members were surprised by and uncomfortable with the arrangement. Nonetheless, they signed off on the intergovernmental agreement being forged between Columbia and Richland and Lexington counties, presumably in order to receive the money those governments have promised, which is less than what’s needed. Even so, the authority board has yet to approve a new contract for Veolia.

While we too doubt the current board’s ability to stabilize the bus system, we share its members’ concern about turning matters wholly over to Veolia. For sure, there’s merit in asking the company to use its expertise to help preserve this vital service. But must that involve giving Veolia what seems like full autonomy over this public entity?

With Veolia controlling day-to-day activities and staff, how much say would any local official have? What’s to ensure that Veolia, whose openness has been questioned in the past, will be as forthcoming as it needs to be?

Transit authority board members have similar questions: “What does that make our responsibility and relation to that person (Veolia’s director)?” Sue Berkowitz asked. John Furgess said having a Veolia employee overseeing the bus system is “like getting the fox to guard the henhouse.”


Article source: http://feeds.stateline.org/~r/StatelineorgRss-Transportation/~3/E1wjP2SNaWM/public-officials-must-ultimately.html