At least seven times over the last month, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has used a department patrol helicopter to shuttle him to community meetings, conferences, luncheons and dinners, a practice questioned by a taxpayers organization.
According to department sources, the new sheriff--who took office in December--has crammed his schedule so full of meetings that it is impossible for him to keep his appointments without using the helicopter, which was purchased specifically for police work and costs $142 an hour to operate.
One day last week, the helicopter was kept on standby for an afternoon so Baca could be shuttled to Westwood to meet with UCLA law students and then be taken to the department's Walnut station for a dinner with local police chiefs, according to departmental information provided to The Times.
The week before, Baca used the helicopter on two occasions, first to be taken to a conference in Huntington Beach and then to attend a dinner with the Altadena Booster Club.
A department spokesman said the sheriff's use of the helicopter is justified. But an official from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn. expressed concern.
"It certainly raises eyebrows," said Jon Coupal, president of the organization. "If the helicopter was purchased for police work, then using it for management transportation seems to be outside the area of what people assumed it would be used for."
In fact, department insiders are urging Baca to drastically cut the number of his public appearances and to arrive at his appointments in a more conventional fashion--by car.
"The helicopter is there to be used judiciously and should not be employed as a tool for dealing with an overbooked schedule," said one department source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He needs to carefully select those appearances or meetings which are essential for carrying out the mandates of his office."
Baca--who could not be reached for comment--has previously said that it is important for him to meet with as many deputies and constituents as possible.
"I do not schedule meetings in one-hour increments," Baca said. "They are in 10-minute increments. They are in five-minute increments. I have people coming with me in my car. I have people meeting me at halfway points. . . . My calendar is open to everyone."
A two-week sampling of his schedule--between Jan. 11 and Jan. 24--shows that Baca was set to appear at more than 75 meetings and functions. Some days, he started work at 7:40 a.m. and ended at 9:30 p.m., with the pace continuing seven days a week.
Lt. Doyle Campbell, a department spokesman, said that even before taking office in December, Baca kept a breakneck schedule that took him from one end of the county to the other.
"He does not like to say 'no' and he does not like to cut people off," Campbell said. "He tries to fit in as many appearances as he can. As time goes on, his schedule will settle down. In the first part of the term, there is an awful lot to do."
But one of Baca's secretaries--used to working for the ever-punctual Sherman Block, who died before the election--has warned the new sheriff to cut back on his appearances because it is too difficult to keep track of where he is going and when he is supposed to be there, according to department sources.
Complicating matters, Baca is notoriously late for his engagements--even when he uses the helicopter.
Several weeks ago, Baca was set to appear at a breakfast meeting with the Rosemead City Council. He arrived 90 minutes late, after the meeting was over.
The city's officials were unbothered by that, however. "It was the first time that a sheriff has ever come to one of our breakfasts," said Rosemead Mayor Bob Bruesch.
Although former Sheriff Block occasionally used the helicopter to get to appointments in the Antelope Valley, for the most part he relied on his personal chauffeur to shuttle him around in a county car, a luxury also provided to Baca.
"In his later years, [Block] did not use the helicopter as much," Campbell said.
The new sheriff is not the only county official who has enjoyed the use of a taxpayer-funded helicopter.
Supervisor Mike Antonovich came under criticism several years ago for using county helicopters on official business. He made at least 12 chopper trips in 1995, with those flights totaling $6,587.
Campbell said he is unsure of the exact cost of Baca's helicopter trips, which usually lasted no more than 16 minutes.
He said that Baca rode with the understanding that if the helicopter was needed on a patrol mission, it would have to be diverted--with the sheriff on board.