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A Start of Something Good

Howard Zemsky says he'll preside over meetings of the NFTA's new Citizens Advisory Committee. (photo by Ginny Stewart)

Much of the recent criticism levied against the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority from the community has centered on the authority’s organizational design, which effectively excludes the voice of its customers and riders. At the NFTA’s first board meeting with new chairman Howard Zemsky at the helm, the NFTA announced qualitative steps to change course and steer closer to the concerns of the community.

Most salient of these steps is the formation a new Citizens Advisory Committee, which was passed at Monday’s full board meeting. The resolution reads:

As a result of comments obtained during the recent public hearing process the Board asked that staff develop a mechanism to formalize a process by which staff and Board could receive comments on Metro’s service on an ongoing basis. Staff recommends establishing an NFTA Metro Citizens Advisory Committee to make recommendations and provide input to Metro staff on a broad range of community public transit related issues, regularly scheduled service changes and impacts on riders. It is anticipated that the Committee would review monitor and recommend service and program improvements or expansion projects to Metro.

The Committee will be composed of not more than twenty-five members representatives [sic] who are current users of the Metro system and represent the diversity of the area and people that Metro serves.

In a brief interview directly following the board meeting, Zemsky doubled down on the spirit of the nascent Citizens Advisory Committee by pledging that he would personally preside over committee meetings.

“My experience in business over the years or any organization I’ve been involved with, it’s less about finding some secret solution, some one transformative event than it is about focusing on the customer,” Zemsky said. “I would say for us a big turning point will be really engaging with our citizens advisory group, and just getting feedback and starting down the road of a continual feedback loop with our customers. Customers have really some of the best ideas for any organization or any business and we’re looking forward to embracing that concept, learning more ideas from customers and implementing them where we can.

“Commissioner [Eunice] Lewin and I will serve on the committee. I think it says a lot about the importance of that position, I think I’m interested in learning from the input from our users, and I think it’s just a high and good use of my time as a chair.”

When asked if Zemsky felt that the other commissioners shared a similar responsibility to be responsive to the public, he answered with a definitive yes. “I think the chair has a unique role as far as setting the tone and representing the authority,” Zemsky said. “There was unanimous consent of the board to engage in this resolution that we passed today. I would say there’s zero opposition to engaging the public.”

Of course the board is still somewhat hamstrung by the slow legislative process of replacing commissioners whose terms have expired, a list that includes half of the board: Henry Sloma, Lewin, Carmen Granto, Kevin Helfer, Jim Eagan. At Monday’s board meeting, commissioners Granto, Helfer, and Mark Croce were all absent. The meeting opened with a few words of appreciation and gratitude for Helfer’s tenure at the authority, heavily implying his portrait hanging on the wall outside the board room might soon be taken down.

And still unclear is what role the Citizen Advisory Committee would play with the proposed addition to the board of a non-voting representative of the disabled/transit-dependent community that’s currently on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk.

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