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Scandal-scarred SANDAG still can’t be trusted

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Five years later, the scandal that enveloped the San Diego Association of Governments in 2017 — forcing the resignation of longtime Executive Director Gary Gallegos — is hard to forget. While Gallegos took the fall for SANDAG’s effort to deceive county voters by sharply exaggerating how much Measure A — a proposed 2016 county sales tax — would generate over 40 years for highway and transit projects, other staffers at the region’s lead transportation agency surely knew it was peddling falsehoods.

Related revelations cemented the image of SANDAG as an arrogant, rogue agency that believed itself to be above accountability. Well before Measure A, agency officials previously stood for years behind revenue forecasts they had strong reason to think were ridiculous. They opposed fixing or disclosing the bad forecasts once they became known. They even proposed an email deletion plan that looked like the start of a brazen cover-up. If SANDAG were a Wall Street firm subject to Securities and Exchange Commission sanctions, the scandal would have been a full-employment act for the white-collar lawyers of Southern California.

More than 15 years after San Diego city leaders were revealed to have played fast and loose with city finances to disguise the damage done by decisions to intentionally underfund pension programs, the city that earned the nickname “Enron-by-the-Sea” is still haunted by a trust gap. Maybe City Hall officials should just follow SANDAG’s lead and pretend this history never happened. Consider the agency’s response to the recent confluence of two events.

The first was SANDAG’s release of a revised plan to make it much easier to use public transit to reach San Diego’s international airport, with initial costs of $4 billion. The second was the disclosure of an internal audit that found SANDAG employees ran up more than $300,000 in “improper” and “questionable” payments on taxpayer-funded purchase cards, with the agency making no effort to press workers to follow established rules even as they were broken. This indifference is even more outrageous than it might initially seem given that a previous 2020 internal audit found Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata had approved hundreds of thousands of dollars in improper severance and bonus payments.

At a time when SANDAG has tens of billions of dollars of bold plans in the works — going far beyond the airport transit plan — it’s fair to wonder whether the agency’s blitheness about the spending of public funds will affect views of its credibility and trustworthiness. Even so, despite repeated requests, SANDAG refused to respond through its media aides to this specific question about the audit and what it said about the agency: “What does SANDAG say to those in the public who consider this one more powerful reason to never trust an agency which hopes to spend tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in coming years on massive projects but has faced scandals over false claims in the past?”

Instead, vague “mistakes were made” answers were provided, with Ikhrata noting the “perception” the audit could cause. It’s not a perception. It’s a reality. SANDAG still can’t be trusted.

Who agrees? Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall, a SANDAG board member. He told an editorial writer that SANDAG ignoring its own rules and then downplaying what it had done was “government at its worst.” He said it was part of an overall SANDAG effort to push a tidy “narrative” about the agency even when its grand plans are unaccompanied by realistic business plans showing their viability.

In separate email interviews, the chair and first vice chair of the SANDAG board — Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear and San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria — agreed with Hall that the audit should be heeded. But Blakespear wasn’t as troubled, writing that she believed SANDAG’s overall record had “earned the community’s trust.” Gloria staked out a more guarded position: “We must do better at demonstrating that this is an agency that is competent, transparent and worthy of the public’s trust.”

Will SANDAG indeed try to do better? Or will a political campaign emerge that emphasizes Hall has long been an outlier on SANDAG issues, ignoring his substantive critique? San Diegans should pay close attention. The stakes — billions of dollars — are too high to treat this flap as inconsequential.