There are now two incidents in which officials at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency have used handshake agreements with companies to either expedite a process or to avoid it altogether — as was the case with recently revealed news about commuter shuttles. The egregious backroom dealing by the SFMTA and its proxies needs to cease immediately.
In an SF Weekly article in early January, the newspaper documented a handshake deal for new Muni buses that would have the coaches in San Francisco in a more timely manner. The issue is that the buses were delivered to an East Bay facility before the Board of Supervisors approved the contract for the new buses. Officials argued that the deal would have allowed the agency to send the buses back if the contract was not approved.
Then in a Wednesday front-page article, The San Francisco Examiner outlined a handshake agreement between the SFMTA and commuter shuttle companies for the buses to use Muni stops without being penalized. The deal — outlined in a series of emails between the charter companies, the companies that contract with those firms and SFMTA officials — was apparently solid enough that the companies felt they could ask for fines for blocking Muni stops to be waived.
In both cases of the handshake deals with SFMTA officials, it is clear that the agreements sped up what could be a laborious process. And in both cases, it is also clear that the deals may not have exactly broken the letter of the law, but they surely toed that line and broke the spirit of the public process.
The SFMTA is a public agency, bound to rules that have been put into place to ensure accountability and transparency. The series of public hearings, meetings and studies that are needed to move projects and contracts forward were put into place to protect the public dollars that fund the transit agency.
While groups or companies — or even SFMTA officials themselves — may wish at times that the process moved quicker, there are necessary checks and balances that should not be bypassed.
It would be best for the SFMTA to admit that the handshake deals it has done in the past were done in error, and were a slight against its duty to be transparent and accountable to the public.
If the agency is unable to admit its shortfalls in these situations, it perhaps needs to be left up to the Board of Supervisors or another city office to step in and put additional safeguards into place.
No city agency should be making backroom deals with any person or company. And handshake deals that usurp the power of a board that oversees an agency should outrage the public and San Francisco officials. No elected official or hired employee of any city agency has the right to bypass the public process in San Francisco, and these handshake deals need to cease immediately at the SFMTA.