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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Paying the Tab for Travel

Superior Court and OCTA Set Controversial Courses

August 10, 2003

This being the vacation season, it's fitting that two public agencies are treating Orange County residents to the possibility of a mini-Travelgate scandal.

Things began to heat up in late July when the Orange County Superior Court refused to turn over judges' and administrators' travel records. Officials claimed the financial records are exempt from the state Public Records Act.

And, in an unrelated action a few days later, the Orange County Transportation Authority began considering whether to send two officials on a $10,900 business trip to Paris that would be underwritten by the French company that contracts with OCTA to manage the 91 Express Lanes.

The court's refusal to release what's clearly public information is the more serious issue.

The Orange County Employees Union sparked the argument by demanding information about the court's travel-related spending. The union is protesting the court's decision to forgo a promised 4% raise for its members, and its leaders maintain that administrators are allowing questionable travel at a time when the county is crying poor.

In rejecting the request, the courts also directed county Auditor-Controller David Sundstrom to ignore a similar request made by the union.

Whether the courts have something to hide is of more than passing interest because court administrators have a legal obligation to tell the public how their tax dollars are being spent.

Sundstrom, who described himself as a "believer in open government," sounds troubled by the court's directive. So is the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which argues that state law and previous court rulings require courts to tell the public how their tax dollars are being spent. The Orange County Employees Union was right to ask an appellate court judge to force the lower court to turn over the records.

Meanwhile, OCTA still has time to do the right thing on the question of sending Board Chairman Tim Keenan and Finance Director Jim Kenan to Paris this year for an International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn. meeting and to tour toll roads owned by the French company that manages the 91 Express Lanes.

There's nothing illegal about the proposed trip, but the financial juggling required to keep the trip legitimate isn't worth the effort. State law prohibits elected officials and some government employees from accepting more than $340 in gifts -- including travel -- from a single source during a year.

But the law also allows donors to reimburse public agencies for expenses, which is how toll road operator Cofiroute France proposes to legally subsidize the questionable trip. But that arrangement still leaves OCTA open to the appearance of a conflict of interest; this company clearly is using its wallet to try to keep an important customer happy.

Keenan might be right when he describes the trip to France as a quick way for OCTA, which recently acquired the 91 Express Lanes, to get up to speed on toll-road operations. But why not start by studying management at tollways closer to home?

If OCTA decides the Paris trip is needed, it should reject the offer of free travel, pay its own way -- and find a savvy travel agent who could trim back that $10,900 price tag.

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