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Silicon Valley legislators sic state auditors on their own districts

A photo composite of Assemblymember Marc Berman (left) at the Capitol in Sacramento on Sept. 10, 2019, and state Sen. Dave Cortese in San Jose on April 25, 2017. | Rich Pedroncelli/ AP Photo ; Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

Two state legislators representing Silicon Valley are ruffling feathers in their home districts after asking California’s aggressive auditing department to scrutinize the local response to two intractable issues: homelessness and transportation.

Senator Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, and Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, each confirmed to The Standard that they requested audits looking into San Jose’s homelessness response and operations at the Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), respectively, in an effort to ensure taxpayer money is being used effectively.

The audits—expected to be completed around the end of the year—are almost certain to have broader political implications, as any shortcomings identified in the reports will likely set off a blame game that pits state and local officials against one another.

Cortese said he called for an audit of San Jose’s response to homelessness after touring an encampment at Columbus Park, located not far from the Guadalupe River. Cortese called the situation a “public health disaster,” and questioned in his audit request how San Jose’s homeless population could surge from 4,350 in 2019 to nearly 7,000 as of last spring.

During this time, he noted, the state has funneled millions of dollars to the city for permanent supportive housing and temporary shelters. 

“This is a big concern, and nobody wants to continue four, five more years down the road only to find out what we thought were great programs in many of these cities should have been redesigned or reworked,” Cortese said in a phone interview.

An annual count of people experiencing homelessness in San Jose found this tent community on Feb. 23, 2022. | Aric Crabb/MediaNews Group/East Bay Times via Getty Images

San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, who voters promoted last November less than two years into his first term on the City Council, said in a statement that he supports “continuously auditing our work,” but the new mayor seemed to bristle over Cortese turning auditors’ eyes on California’s third-biggest city.

“While we’re at it, I hope the senator’s audit will include the state and counties, which have left cities like San Jose on the front line of this crisis with far too little support for mental health care, addiction treatment, jail reentry programs, affordable housing and many other contributing factors,” Mahan said.

“If that’s blaming, shame on him,” said Cortese, adding that the audit will also review another California city’s response to homelessness. 

“If he really wants to make sure the alignment of county investments is part of the audit, he would have been able to tell that from reading the audit request—straight up,” Cortese said.

The Train Game

Berman’s request for an audit into VTA, which manages bus lines and a light rail system for Santa Clara County, also has been met with tepid support from its subject. 

Stacey Hendler-Ross, a VTA spokesperson, said there’s “not much I can offer at this point,” because the audit hasn’t been completed. She noted that VTA has bounced back better than most Bay Area transit agencies with ridership at nearly 75% of pre-pandemic levels with an average of 305,000 bus riders on weekdays last week, and 63,000 light-rail riders. 

Hendler-Ross said VTA is looking forward to the state auditor identifying “any potential improvements we can make to our governance process.”

Going by Berman’s audit request, the list of issues for auditors to examine is lengthy. 

A blue-line Valley Transit Authority (VTA) light rail train passes by the federal courthouse in San Jose on Oct. 6, 2021. (Harika Maddala/ Bay City News)

VTA has a 12-member board that includes two Santa Clara County supervisors, five San Jose council members and five council members from other cities in the county. Too often, Berman said, directors for cities outside of San Jose have limited time on the board, making for a superficial oversight process.

In his audit request, he also notes that “empty or near-empty buses and light-rail trains” are clogging streets, and taxpayers are subsidizing 90% of the costs even as fewer than 5% of county commuters regularly use VTA’s services.

“Prior reports and analyses have identified a lot of areas where VTA is performing very poorly,” Berman said in a phone interview. “What I’ve heard from practically everybody I’ve spoken to is that VTA is a totally staff-driven organization. And I think part of the reason for that is because of the governance structure and because the board members don’t have the expertise, they don’t have the time to develop the expertise.”

This isn’t the first time VTA has been approached with new models or suggestions for reform. 

A state audit in 2008 noted a lack of structural stability in the board; VTA rejected the auditor’s recommendations. A grand jury report in 2019 also found that directors’ terms were too short to provide meaningful oversight; VTA again rejected the findings. And in 2021, a self-assessment by VTA’s board found that “some elected members never fully understand the complexities of VTA operations.”

Joe Simitian, a county supervisor who served on the VTA’s board in 2021, credited Berman for tackling “legitimate concerns.”

“You look in the dictionary under ‘thankless task,’ and this is what you see,” Simitian said.

Berman said he would like to see VTA accept state auditors’ recommendations to reform the organization, and he seemed unconcerned if the findings end up causing blowback. 

“If the audit makes you look bad,” Berman said, “then I’m glad we’re doing the audit.”