Procedural changes shed light on Foothill/Eastern TCA policy

The Foothill/Eastern  Transportation Corridor Agency board of directors oversees the 133, 241 and 261 toll roads. File photo
The Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency board of directors oversees the 133, 241 and 261 toll roads. File photo

By Andrea Papagianis

As the 15 member Foothill/Eastern Transportation Corridor Agency’s governing body unanimously reversed a 6-year-old statute authorizing the chief executive officer and chairperson to spend funds outside the public’s scope, one thing became clear: More transparency was needed.

This agency body oversees the county’s toll road system, including the 133, 241 and 261 toll roads.

The board rescinded a 2008 provision on Feb. 13 granting the CEO authority to sign contracts of up to $25,000 for legislative support and legislative strategy measures. Two weeks later, CEO Neil Peterson was put on leave. TCA officials confirmed his leave but would not elaborate on the reasons behind it.

Peterson, who was appointed in 2013 according to the agency website, was criticized along with Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett in light of contract approvals not being brought before the full board.

While CEO’s could execute certain contracts alone, anything more than $25,000 needed the board’s authorization. But a provision written into the budget in 2008 allowed the chairperson to waive the limit.

Bartlett, the mayor of Dana Point, defended the “widespread” practice.

In governing bodies across the nation, contract approvals of certain amounts are authorized without full body consent—a practice followed in Dana Point, San Clemente and other municipalities, as well as within the Orange County system.

Bartlett joined her colleagues in doing away with the practice but noted the Foothill/Eastern board’s monetary restrictions for such approvals were stringent. She called the practice “standard operating procedure” but agreed more board, and public, oversight was needed.

To say these contracts didn’t have board approval is incorrect, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer said. However, he said, the authority was given by a previous board, and the practice had become rifled in multiple contract extensions—where $25,000 consulting expenses grew to $50,000 and beyond.

Spitzer was highly critical of the practice prior to the vote, highlighting contracts with ex-legislators—such as former Gov. Gray Davis, and former Assemblymen Richard Katz and Robert Maylor—and others that had grown exponentially over the years.

One such contract is with the San Diego-based Gable PR. A $20,000 contract that was penned in December 2007 had grown to more than $500,000 in approvals by 2014, according to a TCA spreadsheet tracking the expenditures. The purpose: to work with media to “ensure balanced coverage” and “increase support in San Diego for the 241 extension,” according to the record.

To Spitzer, the practice was null, as he believed funds spent without scrutiny lead to mistrust of the agency. Ultimately, he said, the “proof was in the pudding” as there was no 241 Toll Road extension.

An effort to extend the toll road from Oso Parkway, outside of San Juan Capistrano, south of San Clemente to Interstate 5 was rejected in 2008 by the California Coastal Commission and federal Department of Commerce. A reignited attempt was rejected late last year by the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board. The TCA has appealed this decision.

Bartlett said while some agency policies have served their purpose, others have not fared so well.

An ad hoc committee was recently formed, comprised of representatives such as San Clemente and Dana Point councilmen Jim Evert and Scott Schoeffel, respectively, to audit internal happenings, Bartlett said. The committee is addressing concerns raised by the board and could present recommendations for operation changes, and refinements, at a meeting later this spring, she said.

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