Toll Road agency closes loophole providing board chair and CEO with certain powers

On Feb. 13, Dana Point Mayor Lisa Bartlett, chairwoman of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency’s board, lost the ability to approve major contracts outside the public’s scope. Here, Bartlett speaks to a crowd. Photo by Andrea Papagianis
On Feb. 13, Dana Point Mayor Lisa Bartlett, chairwoman of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency’s board, lost the ability to approve major contracts outside the public’s scope. Here, Bartlett speaks to a crowd. Photo by Andrea Papagianis

By Andrea Papagianis and Jim Shilander

Members of the Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board unanimously rescinded a 2008 resolution giving the board’s chairperson and CEO special contracting authorities for financial decisions made outside the public’s eye.

With it, CEO Neil Peterson and Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett were stripped of the authority to cosign contracts outside of the public’s scope. The 6-year-old board statute gave the CEO and chairperson the authority to sign contracts up to $25,000 for legislative support and strategy measures. The CEO could execute such contracts alone, but extensions had to be approved by the chairperson.

The resolution extension was part of a budget adopted eight months prior.

At the body’s Feb. 13 meeting, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer criticized the power and highlighted examples of what he considered authoritative abuse.

Spitzer noted that contracts signed in secrecy with the San Diego-based Gable PR were alarming. According to records, an initial $20,000 contract from December 2007 increased to a total $517,793 in approvals by 2014, to provide media relation services in San Diego for the 241 Toll Road Extension.

“Once an elected official is on the record as hiding from the public’s scope trust is lost,” Spitzer said. “Once you lose the public’s trust, as a public agency, it is very hard to get it back.”

The TCA’s effort to extend the 241 south to Interstate 5, south of San Clemente, was rejected by the California Coastal Commission and the federal Department of Commerce in 2008. A modified plan to extend the toll road from its current terminus at Oso Parkway outside San Juan Capistrano was rejected last year by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, a ruling the TCA has appealed.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Spitzer said. “There is no Foothill South.”

San Clemente City Councilman Bob Baker, who serves with Bartlett on the Foothill board, said the city has a similar policy, allowing City Manager Pall Gudgeirsson to sign contracts to spend up to $25,000 without having to report it to the council.

Gudgeirsson said such spending only comes from funds that have already been budgeted by the council. The council also receives a complete warrant register of all money spent by the city each week, which must be signed by the mayor. The failure of the TCA to report those expenditures were, Baker said, his biggest issue, to go along with making payments on a piecemeal basis.

“We probably should have been notified,” Baker said. “And some of these $25,000 ones (contracts) escalated … They turned into $50,000 and $100,000. That’s what got people fired up.”

The board voted unanimously to do away with the 2008 resolution. Spitzer noted he believed Bartlett was acting within her authority as chair. The problem, however, was with her authority being given by previous boards and the decision to continue the resolution was “hidden” in budget approvals, he said.

Bartlett said the city of Dana Point, and nearly every other agency in Orange County, operates under the same procedure, allowing an executive to sign for certain items. She added the Foothill/Eastern policy was actually more restrictive with regard to the dollar amount.

Bartlett said she was simply following “standard operating procedure.”

At the Dana Point City Council’s last meeting, Councilman Bill Brough asked an item be placed on the body’s next agenda to discuss the issue. He said the board’s actions were “unprecedented” and with little knowledge of the agency’s inner-workings, he wanted answers.

Bartlett expressed an interest in discussing the Foothill/Eastern TCA board’s decision at the meeting.

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