The Regional Citizens Committee (RCC) was established decades ago to satisfy a federal mandate to allow public input at the DVRPC. This committee was always open to the public, including special interest groups, and allowed attendees to vote on Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) items. These TIP items identify most transportation projects in the region that are being funded by state or federal dollars. The only restriction on attendees was that only a single member from each group could vote. Government agencies were NOT represented – the committee was intended to be the “public’s voice.”
The RCC meetings in this form were as democratic and diverse as they could realistically be. Like Election Day, meetings were held mid-week during the day, and surely this left some unable to participate, but generally the RCC was considered a model among planning organizations.
As DVARP’s newsletter points out, PA-TEC is indeed a narrowly focused advocacy group. Our primary focus is the prioritization of transportation funding towards projects that create new ridership, serve new areas, address critical infrastructure needs and in turn move the region towards EPA attainment status.
Likewise, the RCC was made up of numerous representatives from other single-issue groups, focusing on subjects such as Peak Oil, Greenhouse Gas reduction, Smart Growth, Green Buildings, etc. Representatives from such groups as DVARP, the Sierra Club, and the Bicycle Coalition frequently appeared. (PA-TEC does not take a position on any of these issues that are outside of our mission.)
Even before a PA-TEC representative first appeared at the RCC, consensus was relatively easy to come by, as most attendees shared some common ground. PA-TEC joined this movement and helped the RCC come up with numerous recommendations for the DVRPC. Some of these contributions included a recommendation to study the transit needs of the northern Philadelphia suburbs ( which DVRPC quietly did later that year), a comprehensive trail map that did not require rail conversion, and a recommendation to implement a Transportation Research Board suggestion to demarcate railroad Right-of-Ways before converting them to trails in order to ensure later availability.
In addition to making these recommendations, the RCC during 2011 also questioned numerous projects. For example, a TIP amendment up for review provided funds for a Wayne Junction Station renovation. Not long ago, Joe Casey, SEPTA’s General Manager, appeared in Harrisburg predicting a doomsday scenario if the Wayne Junction electrical substation failed. This substation is over 80 years old and is considered to be in poor condition. Members of the RCC disapproved of the Wayne Junction Station renovation as it did not address the dire condition of the nearby Wayne Junction (Electrical) Substation.
These RCC members often clashed with the RCC Chairwoman Aissia Richardson and Vice Chair Jim Richardson (no relation). These chairs are not employees of the DVRPC, but elected by fellow RCC members (though the mysteriously unanimous nomination and vote was disputed). Both Richardsons spoke in a condescending manner to most of the committee, and appeared to be trying to prevent discussion on serious issues that were not favorites of the DVRPC. Despite arguably trying to keep discussion on DVRPC topics, Ms. Richardson frequently inserted her own topics, of little or no interest to the RCC or the DVRPC. Ms. Richardson is also the Chairwoman of the SEPTA CAC, but more importantly she was using her role at the RCC to promote her own Uptown Entertainment and Development Corporation, a private group attempting to renovate a theater in North Philadelphia. On at least one occasion, the RCC mailing list was used to solicit funds for Uptown. On another occasion, Ms. Richardson attempted to get a presentation about Uptown onto the agenda. She eventually succeeded in having an update about a theatre project presented during a transportation meeting.
At times, it was very difficult to determine if the two Richardsons were actually seeking to make the “public’s voice” heard to DVRPC (and SEPTA, by extension), or if it was the other way around. In one instance, Ms. Richardson is asked by SEPTA to support the New Payment Technology (NPT) project, and was given a letter to use, and to speak on behalf of the entire CAC, despite the fact that they had not seen all of the project information. Many people and groups have or had at one time opposed NPT, including DVARP, and yet SEPTA was clearly using Aissia to manipulate the public’s voice. In another instance, Jim Richardson gleefully accepts a request to do a presentation, as the DVRPC staff member would be unavailable. At one point, Jim Richardson attempts to quiet a PA-TEC member, and offers his “access” if we would simply hush.
As the voices in the RCC grew bolder, a committee of DVRPC staff and the two Richardsons decided to eliminate voting for general members and instead began appointing votes to people based on “diversity.” Prior to this decision, any member of the public could vote on projects. Now, only those selected by DVRPC staff could vote. This, of course, limited public input. It did NOT enhance it. The new members, who always had the opportunity to attend had they wished, were friends of the DVRPC staff, and themselves had planning backgrounds. Hardly a diverse group, and hardly representative of the public at large.
PA-TEC immediately began a campaign critical of this move. We submitted op-eds for publication to several newspapers, and we posted similar articles on our own website. At the next meeting, Aissia Richardson and Jim Richardson, with full support of DVRPC staff, spent over an hour bashing PA-TEC. They accused us of harassing the RCC Chairs, of asking too many questions of DVRPC, of involving federal authorities. PA-TEC, and the majority of the RCC members that had formed a consensus with us, sat calmly by.
Having failed repeatedly to quell the voice of many concerned citizens, the DVRPC Board of Directors voted to eliminate the RCC altogether several months later. In response, several concerned members of the now-defunct RCC approached representatives of the FTA and FHWA. No representative of DVARP attended.
Meanwhile, Ms. Richardson magically landed a post at a PennDOT committee, and her Uptown Entertainment group was also successful – landing a grant of $1 million from the City of Philadelphia. The RCC, despite no longer existing, was still technically required by previous agreements which would remain in force until a new Public Participation Plan was developed. Nevertheless, DVRPC continues to approve large spending measures and TIP changes with minimal public input.
A month later, the FTA and FHWA issued a joint letter to Barry Seymour echoing the concern of PA-TEC and several former RCC members, essentially reminding DVRPC that RCC still appeared to be a mandatory part of DVRPC’s public input program.
In response to this letter, DVRPC hurriedly developed a new Public Participation Plan (PPP) and new agreements (MOUs). The MOUs were approved immediately, and the PPP was put into circulation to begin an immediate 45-day comment period.
Unlike the old PPP, this plan provides very little meaningful public input. Participation has effectively been reduced to an online suggestion box.
In our discussions with DVARP, they have indicated that they support this drastic change and they will be taking a “wait and see” approach. We respect DVARP’s decision and hold no animosity towards them.
However, DVARP's position on the RCC and DVRPC's public participation is puzzling. DVARP should explain why they are so unhappy about the demise of the RCC, yet simultaneously support the replacement plan. If they like the new plan so much, perhaps they should be thanking us, not blaming us. In any case, DVARP seems to be unnecessarily focused on PA-TEC, instead of protecting the public's right to be involved in major project planning.
We have made it clear that we wish the federal agencies to enforce their regulations, and that we wish the DVRPC to comply. We expect considerable public opposition to the elimination of nearly all useful forms of public input. We believe taxpayer funds belong to the public, and the public has a right and a duty to help direct these funds.
Public Participation is not optional.