By Erica C. Barnett
On Thursday, a Sound Transit committee voted to formally recommend an unidentified “Candidate A” as the new CEO of the regional transit agency and to authorize the chair and vice chairs of the committee to enter contract negotiations with the candidate, whom the board chose from a list of three finalists in a series of closed-door executive sessions.
The process for selecting a new leader for the regional transit agency has been shrouded in secrecy. Sound Transit spokesman Geoff Patrick said anonymity “helps encourage qualified people who are currently employed to put their hat in the ring. Many of the more than 90 applicants likely wouldn’t have stepped forward if doing so was conditioned on their current bosses, employees and stakeholders potentially learning of their interest to move on.”
Patrick said the agency will reveal the name of the nominee in a press release before the final vote.
“We certainly need to just hold the name in confidence just for a little bit longer,” Sound Transit board chair Kent Keel, a University Place council member, said at Thursday’s meeting. “We need to move forward with a couple more items, contract negotiations and such, and the hope is that once the chair and the two vice chairs can get through significant part of those further your conversations with the candidate a we will be in a place to put that name out.”
“If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”—Washington Coalition for Open Government
The state’s Open Public Meetings Act allows agencies to have closed-door deliberations to “evaluate the qualifications of an applicant for public employment” as long as “final action hiring” takes place in public. The committee’s action is fully consistent with the law,” Patrick said, adding, “our committee’s action recommending a candidate and directing next steps of contract negotiations took place in open session.”
However, many other governments in the region conduct high-profile hiring processes largely in public, identifying lists of finalists and conducting public interviews for positions as varied as city council member, county sheriff, department director, and law enforcement oversight office director.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government told PubliCola that in keeping the identities of the finalists secret, the board “snubbed the very people—the public—that it serves. … If anything, the Sound Transit board’s public discussion about candidates ‘A,’ ‘B’ and ‘C’ only breeds more skepticism among citizens. This practice is the opposite of the participatory government that we all aspire to.”
Sound Transit also confirmed that the dozens of community stakeholders who took part in the selection process agreed to sign nondisclosure agreements saying they would not speak about the candidate review process.
Sound Transit is currently facing significant challenges, including a budget shortfall, delays, malfunctioning escalators at its stations, and lagging ridership that will likely be exacerbated as the agency reduces service—increasing the time between train arrivals to 20 minutes—for construction this summer.