Commissioners wary fiduciary responsibility could dissuade future 'trustees'
By Risa Polansky
Miami-Dade's Citizens' Independent Transportation Trust is to gain some of the independence its name suggests after county commissioners solidified its autonomy this month, agreeing to allow the trust to hire its own director and to contract consultants without commission approval.
But one measure that would deem members "trustees" and saddle them with fiduciary duty — a move meant to tack added responsibility onto the new freedoms — caused some discomfort.
"I just don't want us to be putting our good volunteers in a position where it becomes untenable to volunteer for something because of these restrictions," Commissioner Katy Sorenson said. She said she worried the new responsibility would leave members open to personal lawsuits.
The 15-member trust is charged with overseeing and reviewing transportation and transit projects tied to a half-cent surtax county voters approved in 2002.
Members have complained that, because their director Nan Markowitz is employed by the county manager, she answers to staffers overseeing the very projects the watchdog body is supposed to monitor.
"It creates conflicts," said Miles Moss, trust chairman, last month. "Sometimes it's we, the trust, against them, the other departments — and Nan is part of them."
Now is a vital time for the trust to be able to truly function independently, he said, as the county's transit department faces staggering financial hurdles: a more-than $9 billion shortfall over 30 years.
Commissioners agreed, passing the measures allowing for more freedom.
But they deferred the fiduciary item, hesitant to create a burden for crucial volunteers.
Commissioner Carlos Gimenez, who sponsored the measures, said this month he meant only to ensure trust members "guard that money with a higher standard of care," stressing that, "with additional freedom also comes additional responsibility."
Mr. Moss supported the concept, assuring commissioners "we feel confident with it, we feel it is our responsibility. We're very much in favor of this."
Commissioners didn't disagree but hoped to find a different way to do it.
Sally Heyman suggested paying trust members $1 a year.
"That way we are always going to be the deep pocket and the liability goes to us because they are paid."
Instead, Mr. Gimenez proposed examining how the Public Health Trust, which oversees the Jackson Health System, handles the fiscal responsibilities of its members.
"I really kind of want to pattern this after that," he said. "I think it may alleviate a lot of these concerns."
According to the health trust's bylaws, trustees are "included as insured persons within the terms of the comprehensive general and professional liability insurance policies of the county for the protection of individual members of county boards."
They're entitled also to personal liability protection.
Commissioners are to take the transportation trust item back up in October.
They are to consider potential budget fixes - such as fare increases and variable rate schedules — in September.