Today the Kent County Taxpayers Alliance is calling for the resignation of Peter Varga, the CEO of the Interurban Transit Partnership (also known as “The Rapid”). The ITP is the regional transit agency in Kent County that covers Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Kentwood, and Grandville. A news report from David Bailey, investigative reporter from WWMT Channel 3, uncovered unambiguous evidence that members of Varga’s staff, with his knowledge, encouraged each other to circumvent Michigan’s open records laws to prevent public scrutiny of their actions. (view the news story here). Conrad Venema, Planning Director of the taxpayer-funded ITP, emailed Peter Varga, along with two other ITP staff members and two outside paid consultants, and told them to “take this discussion to our private email accounts.” The group was discussing the upcoming vote in Walker on whether to allow voters there to control their own tax rates and spending. (view the email here).
Furthermore, the email mentions that at least one ITP board member may have been involved, potentially implicating the state’s Open Meetings law, which requires public bodies to deliberate in public meetings, not over private email.
KCTA has long criticized the ITP for being the least-transparent and least-accountable government entity in the county. Not only is the ITP’s board not directly elected, but it largely consists of individuals who are not elected to any office at all. Furthermore, the ITP is the only government entity in Kent County that can raise taxes but does not have an elected leadership.
Previously, Mr. Varga has refused to answer simple questions on his agency’s spending and waste, and he even walked out on an interview in May, unable to come up with any answers at all after sitting silent in the face of those questions. Mr. Varga more recently refused to answer questions posed by County Commissioners when he testified to that body last month.
Now Mr. Varga has explicitly approved the use of non-public resources to conduct the business of his agency with the intent of circumventing state law in regards to open records. This is a blatant attempt at preventing the public from understanding what and how the ITP operates. Not only is Mr. Varga’s agency unaccountable, it acts with complete disregard for the taxpayers who pay the salaries of its public servants. Mr. Varga’s actions have no place in a public agency.
“Peter Varga should be ashamed, but frankly, we’re not surprised. The ITP is unaccountable and this is what happens when a public agency is run by an unelected board. Peter Varga’s disregard for the spirit and letter of state law is telling about his wanton disregard for those who pay his salary,” said Jeff Steinport, project manager for KCTA. “We were shocked by David Bailey’s report. This is just a continuation of the ITP’s disregard for openness. The ITP has broken state open records laws in the past when we filed our own Freedom of Information Act request, and they backed down when we made their actions public.”
Previously, KCTA has exposed made-up numbers that the ITP publishes on its economic benefits, its false claim that its buses reduce pollution, its false claims of how much it costs taxpayers to run its buses, and its false claims of improved gas mileage when it spent enormous amounts of money on hybrid-electric buses.
“Frankly, the ITP has no credibility,” continued Steinport. “We’ve never come across a government body that so frequently misleads taxpayers. The public cannot believe the ITP’s numbers because they have such an extensive record of being misleading or simply making things up. The ITP appears to have an internal culture of contempt for openness and accountability. Also, Mr. Varga’s reference to some of the taxpayers – the one’s who pay his $200,000 plus salary, benefits, and company car – as ‘enemies’ because they question the practices of the ITP, shows a remarkably callous disrespect towards those whom he is asked to serve.”