Eric Heinz, Dana Point Times
An explosive article that was published in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, March 11, regarding Transportation Corridor Agencies’ (TCA) cost of consultant fees and payments got the attention of San Clemente’s highest elected official, who addressed the matter on the John and Ken Show on KFI 640 AM on Tuesday.
San Clemente sued the TCA over public records requests that it believed were not fulfilled back in June, and according to the Times report that reviewed the financial documents, some consultants were paid about $185 per hour to read “emails from transportation stories (and) evaluate reporter perspectives.” The Times reported “more than 1,300 hours” were billed for that reading at a total cost of “nearly $230,000,” according to the invoices. In addition, sometimes the work was double-billed.
Officials with Venture Strategic, the main public relations firm contracted by the TCA, stated in the article that much of the additional costs were related to outreach to combat what it claims was “misinformation” from the San Clemente base. The city has been battling against the TCA for years, this time to stop roads that could go right through the city’s residential areas.
“There are very few fans of the TCA down in San Clemente, let me tell you that,” San Clemente Mayor Steve Swartz told the radio hosts on March 12. “Basically, for 30 years almost, they’ve been talking (about) the need to connect the 241 to the 5 . . . and San Clemente has grown over the last decades.”
Swartz was the San Clemente representative on the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency portion of the board in 2018.
“I sat on the board for a year and left in disgust, but the board doesn’t see anything. There are special committees that make all the decisions,” Swartz said. “How do you like this statistic? They were $2.6 billion in debt 10 years ago, when they were supposed to start paying down the debt; now (the debt) is up to $6.4 billion.”
John and Ken didn’t hold back their own feelings of irritability with the TCA, calling the expenses “idiotic” and “absurd.”
“A lot of us didn’t know. We got frustrated,” Swartz said in regard to the consultant payments. “We don’t need the (toll) road . . . nothing tells us that. We spent money ourselves (on studies that show) that we don’t need it and that we have arterials.”
The Times reported that a document showed $380,000 was spent to maintain content for two websites and social-media platforms. The article also shows possible conflicts of interest, as consultants related to Venture Strategic operators were paid for 28 hours of double-billed work in one day.
A representative of Venture Strategic, who spoke on background because the person was not authorized to speak on the record on March 12, said an audit that was compiled by an independent firm showed that the TCA had a 99.9 percent accuracy rate and that some stats from the Times article were cherry-picked.
The spokesperson said that the way in which San Clemente has conducted its own PR campaign could be a violation of Fair Political Practice Commission (FPPC), as campaign forms were not filed for what Venture Strategic sees as campaign content.
The source also pointed to the firm the city of San Clemente hired for public relations against the TCA—Los Angeles-based Englander, Knabe & Allen—as lashing back at the agency after the board did not hire it and instead opted for Venture Strategic, saying that the effort hindered much-needed traffic alleviation in the area.
On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Levin, D-49, wrote a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking for oversight and examination of the operations of the TCA.
“TCA’s actions appear to be a betrayal of the public trust,” Levin stated in the letter. “I urge you to ensure that appropriate ethical and transparency measures are in place for Joint Powers Authorities authorized by the State of California, such as TCA.”
Levin’s letter did not specify beyond that as to what enforcement or oversight should be exercised, but it was clear that the freshman Congressman wanted to put a stop to the reported actions.
WHAT’S NEXT: Another TCA joint board meeting was held on Thursday, March 14, at the agency headquarters, 125 Pacifica in Irvine.