In defiance of a statewide mandate to increase transparency after the city of Bell scandal, the twin agencies that run Orange County’s toll roads recently refused to disclose to the state how much they pay their management and staff.
In an email to the state controller’s office last month, the Transportation Corridor Agencies wrote that they “are not obligated to file this compensation report and respectfully decline to do so.”
The TCA also does not post minutes of public meetings online, something that most other agencies do.
The agencies operate the county’s four toll roads – State Routes 73, 241, 261 and 133 — with a total budget of $356 million. The agencies share a staff of 81 for whom $9.6 million is allocated this year in salary and benefits, according to agency budgets.
Voice of OC first raised the salary disclosure issue with TCA officials April 2, seeking an explanation for why the agencies were refusing to supply the salary data. By April 4, however, the agencies had reversed their position, declaring they would send the information to the state within 24 hours.
In 2010, state Controller John Chiang started requiring government agencies to report how much they compensate employees after the Los Angeles Times revealed that top officials in the small city of Bell awarded themselves some of the highest municipal salaries in the nation. Chiang’s office makes the compensation data available on its website.
While the vast majority of government agencies across the state have complied, the TCA are the only agencies in Orange County listed as failing to provide the compensation data.
The state says it’s rare for agencies to refuse to provide the data.
“The compliance rate has been very high,” said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the state controller’s office, in an interview March 30.
The controller’s office, he added, would “encourage them in the interest of transparency to submit the information. The [more] information we have on the website … the more useful it is to the public.”
The toll road agencies, however, made it clear they wouldn’t provide the information unless they’re shown that it’s legally required.
“After consultation with our legal counsel, we have concluded that as a joint powers authority, the Foothill/Eastern TCA and San Joaquin Hills TCA are not obligated to file this compensation report and respectfully decline to do so,” wrote Carolyn LeBail, the TCA’s administrative services director, in a March 20 email to the controller’s office. “If you have information that may constitute a legal argument to the contrary, please provide that information to me.”
Apparently, LeBail and other TCA officials were given sufficient information to change their position. “Now we see that there is an argument we could be required to submit compensation information,” Olin said last week.
She insisted, however, that queries from Voice of OC’s had nothing to do with the change and asserted that the agencies never ruled out providing the information. “It wasn’t like we were saying we were not going to provide it,” Olin said, despite the agencies’ email stating that they “respectfully decline to do so.”
Tom Margro, the agencies’ CEO, refused a request for an interview on the issue.
There is similar ambiguity regarding whether the agencies will post meeting minutes on their website.
Providing meeting minutes online is now a standard way the public follows the workings of government, including those of special agencies like the TCA. The Orange County grand jury recently declared that “minutes should be listed and rigorously updated” on special districts’ websites.
The TCA says they haven’t posted minutes because the law does not require them to. But Olin said last week that the agencies are planning to post meeting minutes in the future.
“It’s definitely something that we intend to do,” said Olin. “There’s no feeling of deception or anything.”