By John Ruch
Stepping back from a fiery rebuke of the Atlanta City Council’s call for a “More MARTA” program audit, MARTA leadership now says it will “capitulate” and make the council “satisfied,” pending further talks today with the Mayor’s Office.
“My commitment is, whatever it is they need to feel satisfied, we will provide [to] them,” said Collie Greenwood, the transit agency’s general manager and CEO, under questioning from members of the MARTA Board of Directors’ Audit Committee at a March 23 meeting.
Board chair W. Thomas Worthy echoed Greenwood’s comments that “we are an audit-friendly environment, and we are more than happy to participate in any audit the mayor and his team want to do.” He suggested that MARTA and the City split the cost of hiring an auditing firm neither has used before to ensure “credibility.”
After the meeting, MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher denied that the transit agency was walking back its previous commentary, but confirmed an audit was on the table if the Mayor’s Office wants it.
The council and Mayor Andre Dickens have expressed frustration for months over the lack of progress on transit expansion funded by the 0.5 percent “More MARTA” sales tax approved by voters in 2016. MARTA has repeatedly pared down the list of priority projects and spent millions of the revenue on bus operations.
Earlier this week, the council approved a resolution calling for better transparency on “More MARTA,” including an audit that would be conducted by the City’s Department of Finance at its expense. The resolution was developed in behind-the-scenes conversations with the Mayor’s Office. That audit call was promoted in a March 23 press conference by council President Doug Shipman; District 2 Councilmember Amir Farokhi, who chairs the Transportation Committee, and District 11 Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet.
Shortly before the press conference, MARTA issued a written statement condemning the audit call in stinging terms. The statement said the demand was a “stall tactic” that is “disappointing and disingenuous,” and that the councilmembers need to “get out of the way.”
The statement said MARTA said it has been audited many times, with data provided to the council already, and that the one the council wants would cause most “More MARTA” projects to be halted. The claim the audit would force a program delay was questioned by Shipman as well as by Josh Rowan, the transit agency’s own former deputy general manager. As presented in Audit Committee meetings, MARTA conducts scores of audits at any given time without halting planning and operations.
It appears that more behind-the-scenes conversations have happened in the wake of the press conference and MARTA’s blistering response. Shipman declined to comment on March 22 on whether he had spoken to MARTA board members. Greenwood told the Audit Committee that the transit agency’s budget team was meeting with the Mayor’s Office on March 23 to go over the More MARTA finances.
Regardless, Greenwood’s comments in the Audit Committee meeting were far more conciliatory – and there was no mention at all of an audit supposedly delaying the program. The council’s audit call was raised by board member Jim Durrett, who asked if the results of an existing external audit could fulfill the request.
“Thank you for bringing that up,” said Greenwood, adding, “We are an audit-friendly environment.” He said that if the existing audit materials and further Mayor’s Office discussions did not satisfy the council, MARTA would conduct some other form of audit. He said that could be the case because he understands the council’s request as “less of a financial audit and more of a management decision audit or review.”
“At the end of the day, we’ll see what questions remain,” said Greenwood. “If nothing else, MARTA remains an open book.”
Greenwood added that MARTA has provided the council with a variety of information and understands there was interest in more detail. “Now that there’s a request for something more formal, we’ll simply capitulate to that and let that happen,” he said.
Other questions indicated that MARTA staff and board had not fully communicated about the friction over the council’s audit call.
“All I know about this Atlanta situation is all I’ve read in the paper,” said board member William Floyd.
Greenwood gave his version of a summary of the situation, which largely left unexplained the stinging comments and program delay claim made in the previous written statement. He said MARTA believed the information it has provided to the council’s Transportation Committee already answered all questions. But, he acknowledged, there is an “iterative process” in making sure the answers are understood and that new information can lead to further questions. “It’s not a binary thing,” he said.
As for the council’s “public plea” in the press conference, “we learned of that the night before,” Greenwood said. Alluding to the written statement’s language, he said, “It’s not that we needed to know that was coming… The disappointment comes in the way that request came.” He said MARTA believed it was already providing information in good faith.
Greenwood noted the intergovernmental agreement (IAG) between MARTA and the City on the More MARTA program technically requires a response to the mayor, not the council. But, he added, he believes the audit resolution was created with Mayor’s Office input, and responding to the council is important “if we want to partner with each other in a good landscape of cooperation.” However, he said, MARTA has to be careful about operating outside of the IAG’s format, “for lack of a better word, on a whim. I think we should do it on a more formal basis.”
Fisher, the MARTA spokesperson, later elaborated on what that could mean. “If the Dickens Administration wants to pursue an audit, we are open to amending the IGA, setting the parameters, and proceeding accordingly,” she said.
Board member Al Pond criticized the public nature of the MARTA vs. council war of words. “Wherever this goes, I still believe that this should have been solved outside of the news media,” he said, suggesting the chief financial officers of the transit agency and the City should have worked it out. Durrett noted that the council is a separate governmental body.
Shipman, the council president, declined immediate comment after the Audit Committee meeting. But the day before, he emphasized the importance of public trust for More MARTA and other projects that voters also may be asked to fund in the future.
“The ability to maintain trust with residents is how you can go and ask for special bonds, special taxes, special funding for transit, and we do it for other things – education [and] infrastructure,” he said. “And if you can’t maintain trust around More MARTA, it begins to imperil your livelihood of being able to get residents to support those types of referendums in the future.”
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