Tuesday, May 22, 2007 | As the state Assembly ponders reforms for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the agency’s board is taking its own steps to internally revamp the organization.

The authority is aiming to tighten its policies on travel expenses and reimbursements, eliminating rules that allowed authority officials to fly first-class on domestic flights and to get permission to be reimbursed for alcoholic beverage purchases while traveling.

The Reformation

  • The Issue: The airport authority’s new board is looking to reform its policies on travel reimbursements and beer and wine consumption.
  • What It Means: While the state Legislature is debating the authority’s management structure, the authority is looking to reform internal policies. The revisions would address concerns raised by media coverage in previous years.
  • The Bigger Picture: The authority’s new board members say they hope to systematically review internal policies, acknowledging that with the site-selection process complete, they have the free time to do so.

If approved, the reforms would address issues that have dogged the authority during its first four years in existence.

Reporters have repeatedly documented expensive trips taken by airport officials and former authority members. Television station Fox 6 reported last year that authority President and CEO Thella Bowens took several first-class trips domestically and abroad. In 2004, the authority paid $3,600 to fly her to Washington, D.C. A coach flight currently costs about $300. The San Diego Union-Tribune, a local newspaper, reported in 2005 that the authority had improperly paid for alcoholic drinks at an authority board retreat.

The news coverage “might be why it’s one of the first policies we’re looking at,” said authority member Jim Panknin. “But all of the policies need to be reviewed. It’s going to be a monumental task. That was a good place to start.”

The authority is proposing to prohibit officials from traveling first-class on domestic flights. The new policy, which was discussed at a Monday committee meeting, would require receipts for all expenses while traveling — not just expenditures above $25. It would eliminate Bowens’ power to approve reimbursements for alcohol and liquor purchased at authority-related meals.

The legislature created the authority in January 2003, moving the airport’s management out from the auspices of the Unified Port of San Diego, while setting the table for the multi-year effort to relocate the city’s international airport. Authority members have long acknowledged that improvements could be made to the agency’s policies, which recently received less attention than its lengthy $17.2 million site-selection process. That effort culminated last year with voters’ rejection of a commercial airport at Miramar.

Though the media spotlighted several issues, the authority’s internal policies were not high priorities last year, said Mary Teresa Sessom, a former authority member and Lemon Grove’s mayor.

“We had site selection, the master plan, land use compatibility — and none of that was without significant controversy,” Sessom said. “It wasn’t that we weren’t aware of it. We just never got around to it.”

The authority has made other changes this year, as seven of its nine members have been replaced. Its annual retreat occurred at the authority’s offices, saving thousands in lodging expenses. Several of its subcommittees have stopped meeting, with more business simply coming to the full board — rather than a committee without authority to take action.

The steps are part of a broader effort to establish credibility as a new board, said Ramona Finnila, an authority board member.

“We want people to know we’re serious about our jobs — I don’t know how long they’re going to last — and we care about aviation,” she said.

The state Legislature continues to push reform from the outside. Legislation introduced by state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, cleared the Senate last week.

The final product promises to be much different than the original bill, however. Kehoe aimed to cut the number of board members from nine to seven, require them to be elected officials and strip the agency of its land-use planning powers at the county’s regional airports. None of those provisions will make the final bill, which Kehoe said would still cut the $171,648 annual salaries paid to three executive committee members

The legislation, if approved, would eliminate some of the airport authority’s oddities, stripping the power of Sheriff William Kolender and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to appoint board members. Instead, the city of San Diego would appoint three; the county’s Board of Supervisors would appoint two; and sub-regional groups of cities would appoint the remaining four.

“My one goal is that we increase the transparency of the board’s actions and public accountability and reduce taxpayer cost,” Kehoe said. “That is still in the bill. I’m very much hoping to keep that commitment.”

Kehoe said the bill’s revised version will not provide for an airport czar to oversee future planning for Lindbergh Field. City Council President Scott Peters had sought the creation of the overarching position.

Kehoe said the bill would not prevent the authority from creating such a position.

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