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SMART reviews cuts after failure of sales tax renewal

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A day after a double-digit election loss, SMART is planning no immediate changes in leadership as the commuter rail agency begins devising plans to recover from the staggering defeat of its 30-year sales tax extension.

Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit officials are now reviewing potential cuts to service that were drawn up before the election in case voters rejected Measure I. The agency’s board of directors will be presented an early version of those options later this month, with future reductions expected to take effect as early as this summer.

SMART’s internal review comes as it begins to consider the political implications of the message delivered by voters Tuesday and attempts to build support for a sales tax renewal in a future election. The transition plan will require winning back the trust of past supporters who voted against the 2½-year-old transit system this time around.

“We are very much disheartened by the outcome, but … this was not a one-time shot, and we just have to figure out how to do it better,” said SMART General Manager Farhad Mansourian. “I think we need to do a lot of listening in the next many, many months, and figure that out. We’ve got a lot of learning to do.”

SMART sought extension of its quarter-cent sales tax nine years early so it could refinance rising debt service payments. The plan would have allowed the commuter rail agency to maintain current operations along its 45-mile line from Larkspur to north of Santa Rosa, including an expanded train schedule launched in January. With a guaranteed revenue stream into 2059, SMART also hoped to extend its $653 million system to complete original plans for a 70-mile line north to Cloverdale.

The battle over Measure I became the most expensive ballot campaign in North Bay history, drawing more than $3 million in spending by the two rival camps. With all precincts and early mail-in ballots counted, just 51% of voters in Sonoma and Marin counties supported the ballot measure, far short of the two-thirds majority required to pass.

Along the rail corridor Sonoma County, residents in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Healdsburg largely favored the train, while those in Windsor, Cloverdale, Rohnert Park and Cotati opposed the measure, according to precinct data posted on the county elections website. Swathes of west county and the Sonoma Valley also supported Measure I, while rural portions of the north and south county rejected the tax.

Following SMART’s worst loss to date at the polls, the people who led the campaign against Measure I are calling for wholesale changes to the agency and its operations. Members of the vocal opposition group want the agency to address the issues of transparency, accountability and financial oversight that critics highlighted in the campaign. And they want it soon, or believe SMART risks further damage as it tries to earn voters’ confidence for a future election.

“The key piece is that they are operating the agency in the red right now. So the first thing when you’re digging a hole is to stop digging, and does the board understand that?” said Novato resident Mike Arnold, an economist and longtime SMART critic. “They need to hold management accountable, and are they going to? The answer is I don’t know but, absolutely, they really need to change up the senior team.”

Molly Gallaher Flater, who donated $1.8 million to kill the tax extension, has made similar demands of SMART. Flater, chief operating officer of Windsor-based Gallaher Homes and daughter of prominent Sonoma County developer Bill Gallaher, did not return phone and email messages seeking an interview but offered a written statement Wednesday after her victory.

“Taxpayers have a right to know the facts, and we were glad to have given them a voice to express their concerns with this public agency and this tax measure,” Flater said. “Based on results … voters agreed with us. It’s time for SMART to operate within their means and live up to their promises.”

SMART board members acknowledged Wednesday a need for SMART to better engage with the communities the train serves and allow them more involvement in decisions.

However, they rejected calls to dismiss Mansourian and other executive-level staff, saying the board — and not staff — is responsible for doing much of the work that needs to happen before voters are asked again to renew the tax.

“I understand the scrutiny that they get, but, first and foremost, the board is to blame,” said Santa Rosa Councilman Chris Rogers, a SMART board member. “The board oversees staffing decisions and is supposed to provide oversight. If the community feels there’s no oversight, then the buck stops with the board on that one.”

“Trying to point a finger at staff is inappropriate,” added Novato Councilman Eric Lucan, the SMART board chairman. “The result of this election does not change my sentiments about how I feel our top-level management continues to perform. Without the general manager we have now, we wouldn’t have a train running.”

It is too early to tell when SMART will submit another ballot measure to renew the system’s sales tax before it ends in 2029, Lucan said. The decision will be the result of many long conversations between the board and the public to ensure there isn’t a repeat of Tuesday’s result, he and other board members said.

“We really need to involve the community in everything we do. That’s one of my takeaways,” said longtime SMART board member Deb Fudge, a Windsor councilwoman. “There’s a mistrust of government in general, and we need to figure out how to counteract that.

“We need to sort of restore trust in the agency so people believe what we say, and not what they hear from a random campaign.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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