Manager's Forum: How a Board can Help Directors' Manage Systems

Sumter, S.C.
Ann Dawson August
Executive Director/CEO
Santee Wateree Regional Transportation Authority

I must begin by thanking the Mass Transit magazine staff for the opportunity to provide comments to this vital topic. As a small urban and rural transit director in South Carolina, I initially found out quickly the importance of what I call the Big Four Cs — communications, collaboration, cooperation and commitment. All of these are important when it comes to working with your board of directors and them working with you. However, it is extremely important first to note that all boards are not created equal. …
Some boards are appointed by the local governments in which the transit system serves and then others may be elected. The diversity of each transit board member is significant, which transcends gender, race and ethic origin; the diversity I am talking about refers to their business and/or community backgrounds; in essence what are they bringing to the transit board regarding knowledge and experience.

I will direct my comments on the subject based upon an appointed transit board, since my transit board members are appointed via the local governments and the legislative delegation in the areas served by our transit system. As a transit director, we must work with all board members regardless of the reasons why they chose to serve on the transit board (community service, interest in public transit, just because they were asked by the appointing authority, or they feel they can help someone get a job); all of the reasons are important; however, in the whole scheme of things, none of that really matters. What matters most is not why the board member is on the board, but the people to whom we are accountable (the taxpayers), to those persons currently being served and those potential passenger that can be served by the transit system.

In order to fully address the question, I had to determine what I believe really makes a good transit board, and it all goes back to my first comments about the Big Four Cs. In my opinion, to be a good transit board, the members must first be willing to commit to the board responsibilities by understanding the difference between governance and operations. Attend meetings regularly, review materials received and be prepared to discuss topics as an active participant.

The following are just some more examples of what I consider to be standards for good transit boards:

The board members must be about open and honest communications — respecting views and opinions that are not their own.

The board members must be committed and understand the importance of public transportation and advocate for it. And understand the significance of building cohesive relationships with the community, local and state leaders who can or will make transit-related decisions.

The board members must always be focused on what the key issues are that may be affecting the transit system and the board’s purpose. Take the time to learn as much about the transit industry as possible and be aware of current events surrounding transit.

The board members should be able to assess the local and state environments based upon collaboration, coordination and communications with others in the industry. Be active participants in local, regional, state and national workshops, training sessions and conferences to network with those in the industry through associated interests.

Board members should discuss among themselves and work closely with the transit director/CEO regarding strategic goals and annual objectives.

I realized early on that the reason most transit board members did not grasp the full extent of their responsibility is because of the lack of exposure to public transit information when they are initially appointed to a transit board. This is why I consider it to be extremely significant for them to be exposed to as much transit information as possible via board orientation. Each board member should have a job description, as well as interaction, when possible, with other transit board members.

A good informed board can help the transit director by realizing the difference in its roles regarding governance and the operations of the transit system; realizing that its primary role is approximately 90 percent policy-making, with the other 10 percent divided between community/public relations, liaison between the board, its appointing authority and other elected officials. A good transit board will be a partner with the transit director in making sound and effective policy decisions regarding the transit system.

Good transit board members can help the transit director by being committed to the job they have been appointed to; by taking the time to be informed, to do research when necessary and to communicate often the importance of public transit to anyone who will listen. It is also important as well to understand the economic impacts of public transit and the need to have adequate funding for the public transit system.

A good transit board can assist the transit director by collaborating and communicating with other transit board members within its region and on a state level by building a transit board member network. This will enable members to see what is working at other transit systems within the state regarding funding, public relations/advertising, personnel policies, etc …

At our agency I have found that written and consistent verbal communications provided a positive environment between my board members in general, and the board chair in particular. The bottom line is to create a partnership, with teamwork being the key to how a good board can help a transit director manage the transit system effectively and with everyone working together for the benefit of the transit system for those persons using or those who may use the services.

Manager’s Forum goes to the front lines of the transit industry to get feedback on different topics relevant to passenger transportation — and we want to hear from you! If you have an idea for discussion or would like to voice your opinion, please contact Leah Harnack at (920) 563-1688 or via email at

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Building the Future Together — Association Involvement
Archived Article: Public or Private?