Outgoing WMATA board chair Peter Benjamin talks
with newly confirmed GM/CEO Richard Sarles
The Board of Directors of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Association (WMATA) met on Thursday — the first board meeting since the Riders Advisory Council meetings of January 3d and 5th which took up the recently announced bag search program.
While the bag searches were not on the agenda, activists from the Montgomery County Civil Rights Coalition, the DC Civil Liberties Coalition, and elsewhere, and representatives of WMATA’s Riders Advisory Council (RAC) helped put the issue front and center during the meeting.
The board approved a motion by newly sworn in member Tommy Wells (DC) to consider RAC recommendations about the bag search program in the Customer Service and Operations Committee, which will meet next on Thursday, February 10 at 9am in the WMATA building. Those recommendations — reported directly to the board by RAC chair Frank DeBernardo — include halting the bag search program immediately, and
…undertak[ing] a further comprehensive examination of the program, analyzing its effectiveness as a deterrent against terrorism in general, and in particular, from the context of public concern about civil liberties. The review should also examine the program in light of other pressing public safety needs currently unaddressed, such as improving police response time and increasing police presence on trains and buses and in stations. There should be broad public participation in this examination, including at least one public hearing, consultation with the Riders’ Council and dialogue with civil liberties organizations and other relevant groups.
Activists such as Pat Elder, Jim Harper, Kurt Mueller, Thomas Nephew, Karen O’Keefe, and Sue Udry spoke against the bag search program during the public comment period, and several urged the board to adopt the RAC recommendations.
In the discussion following the RAC report, board member Kathy Porter (MD, alternate) said that while security was a paramount responsibility, the board should “balance contributions to the security of the system of a particular proposal to its intrusiveness as well as to other ways the same resources could be allocated… “
Some board members appeared to be under the impression that the bag search program was a response to a threat; for example, Jeff McKay (VA, alternate) said that “I don’t want to agree with the assertion that there’s not a credible threat… darn it, when they tell me that there’s a threat I’m going to believe them.” In fact, a Metro Transit Police “talking points” document — released when the program was announced — emphasized the opposite: “there is no specific or credible threat to the system at this time.”
Though on hand, neither Chief Taborn nor newly confirmed General Manager Sarles chose to correct Mr. McKay’s or other board members’ misunderstanding. The point may be important to the board: did GM Sarles and Chief Taborn react to news seeming to require a quick executive decision, or did they undertake an action that was more properly an issue for the board to consider first?
Videos of several public statements, board member statements, and other parts of the meeting are forthcoming. One event — of the swearing-in of four new WMATA board members Tom Downs, Mary Hynes, Kathy Porter, and Tommy Wells — was particularly heartening. Each board member pledged to uphold the principles of the WMATA Compact — but also the Constitution of the United States. While our federal government often struggles of late to abide by the limits set by the Bill of Rights, that need not stop each of these board members or their colleagues from doing so as they consider the bag search program.
- Sarles promises action, board mixed on bag searches (Alpert, Greater Greater Washington)
- Riders call on Metro to halt bag searches; board sends to committee (Weir, Washington Examiner)