YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Meals for 8 O.C. Officials Total $18,000


COSTA MESA — Orange County's eight highest-ranking transportation officials spent more than $18,000 in taxpayer money last year on staff meetings held in restaurants and on entertainment for business and government leaders, according to a Times review of expense records.

In some cases, transportation officials dined with each other and billed taxpayers for the privilege, records show. At other times, they picked up the tab for lobbyists or executives doing business with county transportation agencies, including bond underwriters and engineers already being paid thousands of dollars through lucrative contracts.

The Orange County Transportation Authority's chief financial officer, James A. Kenan, whose salary is $106,642 a year, spent $6,074.09 on meals, mostly with finance firms involved in OCTA's Measure M bond sale last year. He also signed and approved his own reimbursements, as did OCTA Chief Executive Officer Stan Oftelie, who earns $131,608 a year and reported $2,783.91 in meal expenses.

Total spending for the eight officials--the top four from OCTA and the top four from the county's separate Transportation Corridor Agency--reached $18,605.90.

"That's a lot of tuna sandwiches," said Supervisor Roger R. Stanton, who also serves as an OCTA board member and who spearheaded a clampdown on staff travel. "I'd want to go and talk to Stan and Jim about this."

When told about the spending and that top OCTA officials approved their own expense accounts, OCTA Chairman Gary L. Hausdorfer said he would "move to correct any deficiencies in our policies."

Still, Hausdorfer said, focusing on meal expenses should be balanced by OCTA's successes in cutting costs elsewhere, including travel, and by its performance in delivering projects promised to voters--often millions of dollars under budget and months ahead of schedule.

Hausdorfer said some business meals are justified as the best, most efficient use of employee time. "OCTA should be more careful, however, in determining what discussions can and should take place in agency offices during regular business hours," he added.

Transportation Corridor Agency officials said they see no problem with meal reimbursements. "We feel we got value for the money spent on meals," spokesman Mike Stockstill said recently.

"Spending for meals was done as part of the normal and accepted practices of the TCA and is within the guidelines for such spending as previously established by the agency," Stockstill added in a written statement issued last week.

Under longstanding policies at the transportation agencies, such reimbursements for meals are allowed. The cost of alcoholic beverages must be deducted from expense claims. The OCTA also requires its employees to deduct tips.

The meal expenses pale in comparison to those of the Los Angeles Transportation Commission, which spent more than $100,000 on meals and free doughnuts for staffers last year, provoking public outrage. Nevertheless, the OCTA and TCA meal tabs reflect a sharp difference between the liberal policies of Orange County's two independent transportation agencies and the more restrictive policy set for employees of the County of Orange.

Under the purview of Steve Lewis, the county's elected auditor-controller, the county's policy bars reimbursements for meals except for those eaten during business trips outside the county. "Generally, you can't pay for the meals of others and get reimbursed for it," Lewis said.

Said Stanton: "I'm hearing about this for the first time, but my first reaction is that if we can live with (Lewis' policy) at the county level, why can't our independent agencies elsewhere in the county?"

The spending habits of officials at transportation agencies around the state prompted state Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco) to sponsor a bill this year to curb extravagant gifts and other perks.

Among the co-authors of the bill, which is expected to go before the Senate for a vote next week, are Assemblymen Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) and Mickey Conroy (R-Orange). The bill would prohibit the California Transportation Department from funneling money to agencies that have not adopted a policy restricting the use of public funds for entertainment, gifts and memberships in clubs or organizations.

It would also restrict the purchase of life insurance for board members and limit the amount of money spent on travel and air fare. The measure would prohibit agencies from spending public funds on food, beverages or lodging for people who are not employees or officers of the agency.

The Orange County Transportation Authority oversees more than $150 million a year in highway and transit spending, with most of the money coming from Measure M, the half-cent county sales tax approved by voters in 1990 for a 20-year list of traffic improvements.

The Transportation Corridor Agency oversees the construction of three South County toll roads that are funded mostly by developer fees and the sale of construction bonds.

Los Angeles Times Articles