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The airport authority rolled out several proposed revisions to its travel reimbursement policies today, stopping short of calling for per-diem allowances for its employees.

The proposed changes address some issues our coverage raised about the authority’s travel policies. We found authority employees were repeatedly reimbursed for expenses that aren’t allowed. Other employees were reimbursed for costly meals while traveling, spending as much as $99 on dinner.

The draft changes, which aren’t final, call for:

  • An annual audit of employee expenses.
  • Prohibiting employees from signing off on their own expenses.
  • Requiring all expenses incurred by board members and the authority’s president to be approved.
  • Allowing authority employees to be reimbursed for meals together when they’re justified by “special circumstances.” (The policy doesn’t say what those special circumstances would be.)

At a committee meeting this morning, Bob Watkins, the authority chairman, told staff to continue reworking the draft revisions to make them more specific.

“We just need to have as bulletproof a program as we possibly can get,” Watkins said. “While we need to follow our own rules — we need to use reasonable judgment — I don’t think we should capitulate necessarily on everything that’s been brought up in various media.”

While acknowledging that the authority is a public agency, Watkins said “we actually operate in a way that’s different than public organizations. We travel consistently around the globe for the purpose of building business, creating value for the region. But at the same time we need to be cognizant of the public trust.”

Tom Smisek, the former Coronado mayor, also suggested that the authority didn’t need per-diems caps on travel expenses like local municipalities have because authority employees travel to boost business.

But that’s not always the reason airport employees travel, and they’ve incurred individual meal expenses approaching $100 while attending conferences on topics like storm water ($91 dinner), art in the airport ($84 dinner) and effective executive speaking ($84 dinner). The city of San Diego limits meal reimbursements to $64 per day.

Watkins said the authority should consider whether to ban all first-class travel, which is only allowed when business-class seats aren’t available, but didn’t commit to doing so. He said he didn’t want caps on spending or per-diem allowances like those the city of San Diego uses.

Watkins continued to maintain that the authority’s travel policies aren’t black-and-white rules. He said some issues our coverage raised “became a matter of interpretation. You need a certain amount of flexibility.”

The discussion is scheduled to go to the full authority board in October.

ROB DAVIS

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