The $488,000 compensation package for SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian, recently approved behind closed doors by the SMART board of directors, raises fundamental questions about the board’s ability to perform a critical function: safeguarding taxpayer interests.
No one thinks the compensation is fair or that the agency couldn’t have found an outstanding candidate with experience in passenger rail transportation for a more reasonable compensation package.
So, how did the board approve compensation so outrageous it was recently criticized by staunch SMART proponent Dick Spotswood?
The answer is clear: The SMART board didn’t do the homework voters expect and deserve. It didn’t consider how future taxpayer dollars would be committed by the legal double-dipping into two different public pension programs.
The boards of all public agencies have fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers who fund the activities of the agency. Before signing any contract — and certainly a contract that could potentially cost taxpayers millions of dollars in additional pension benefits — it is the board’s responsibility to carefully consider the financial consequences of its actions and conduct due diligence, such as consulting with available public compensation experts.
Had the SMART board members done so, they would have discovered that the pension benefits accruing to Mansourian were precisely the kind of payouts that virtually all voters find outlandish and unfair.
Clearly, the board didn’t consider how much Mansourian’s pension benefits and the cost to taxpayers would increase when he switched from one pension system (Marin County) to another (Calpers). The two Marin supervisors sitting on the SMART board should have known that such a contract would result in a huge hit to future taxpayers’ funds. As if the pension double-dipping wasn’t enough, the board members sweetened the deal further when they signed off on a guaranteed 18-month severance to an individual nearing retirement age.
What has been the response of board members to the onslaught of criticism it has received after the public was informed of the full size of the compensation?
SMART’s chair and vice chair have claimed the compensation package “is a very small economic consideration” and “a financial package … comparable to executives with his qualifications and level of experience nationwide.”
I say “prove it.” Disclose to the public the compensation studies done prior to finalizing Mansourian’s contract. Provide the public with the documents detailing SMART’s evaluation of compensation packages for executives of comparable passenger rail agencies. Demonstrate that the board completely understood the full cost of Mansourian's compensation to future taxpayers and, despite this knowledge, still granted him a huge increase over the compensation he received as Marin's public works director.
The conclusion that Marin and Sonoma voters ought to draw from this episode is that we continue to be poorly represented by the politicians serving on the SMART board. The board is so dysfunctional that it is incapable of making decisions that require careful reasoning and execution of prudent judgments.
What can voters do?
The only choice left is to use the power of the ballot box to shut off the revenue stream that funds this board’s incompetence. Voters need to step up to exert control over a board that defends its decision to hire a general manager with no experience in rail transit and compensate him $488,000 a year to oversee a rail agency with only 15 employees, an agency that plans to deliver only half the rail service promised voters in 2008 without further voter input, an agency that breaks promise after promise to the voters, including siphoning off $8 million from valued Marin County transportation programs.
Petitions to repeal SMART’s funding are now in circulation. Be sure to sign them. It’s your last chance to remind the SMART board members that they work for the voters, not the other way around.