Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2009 | The woman walks through San Diego’s airport with purpose in her high heels, her rolling luggage trailing behind. She strides, pauses, smiles as she checks her cell phone.

The small scene unfolds in the Airport Authority’s 2008 annual report, mailed each year to officials throughout the region. The sequence stretches from page 21 to page 22, below a blurb about the airport’s future. The woman looks like a business traveler.

She’s not.

Her name is Elsa Martinez. She’s a model, hired by the Airport Authority to pose for the report. The four hours she worked cost the traveling public $792 — plus another $400 for a makeup artist.

The cost was included in the $82,000 the authority spent to produce 2,500 copies of its annual report, which touts its accomplishments for the year and contains its financial report. The 30-page document, whose design ran over budget by 7 percent, cost $33 per copy to produce and send to the region’s luminaries. While the authority says it used soy-based inks and 100 percent recycled paper to produce the document in an environmentally conscious way, it isn’t available online.

The effort is a small part of a $2.5 million authority marketing contract that has included a redesign of the airport’s six-year-old logo, a project that has cost $86,000 so far and not yielded a new logo.

Hiring models is uncommon for public agencies and illustrates the common refrain that the authority doesn’t think it is one. Its board members and staff frequently refer to the authority as a business or a quasi-governmental agency. But there’s nothing quasi about it. The Airport Authority, established by the state Legislature in 2003, is a public agency subject to state public-meeting and open-records laws.

It gets most of its revenue from the traveling public and is taking more of their money than it once did. The authority boosted parking fees in 2008 and is currently weighing a proposal to increase fees on taxis and parking shuttles to raise revenue and cut congestion.

While the authority is a public entity using the traveling public’s money, it hasn’t always acted like one. Its employees have flown to Los Angeles for meetings at a roundtrip cost of $821. The agency’s chairman, Bob Watkins, last month repaid the authority $1,200 for Chargers tickets he’d expensed. While traveling, employees have expensed meals as high as $99. The authority is in the midst of changing those expense policies after voiceofsandiego.org revealed that they weren’t always being followed.

The authority’s spending has drawn a rebuke from Mayor Jerry Sanders, who has urged it to tighten its expense policies.

“The Airport Authority needs to run like a government agency,” Sanders said. “They are a government agency whether they want to be one or not. I think people want government agencies to run efficiently, but not hire models.”

Authority spokeswoman Diana Lucero said the agency has hired models before on rare occasions when it wasn’t practical to use an authority employee or stock photography. She said hiring professional models for photo shoots can be more cost-effective and less disruptive than using airport employees. Using stock photographs is growing more expensive, she said.

But at a rate of $162.50 per hour, hiring Elsa Martinez exceeded what even the highest-ranking authority employees make hourly. And the number of inexpensive stock photography options has increased, frustrating professional photographers.

Frank Cowell, president of the Carlsbad-based Elevator Marketing Store, said low-cost stock photographs are increasingly popular with his clients. Though they don’t get exclusive rights to images, Cowell said many clients are willing to accept that “for a dramatically lower cost.”

The model was hired unbeknownst to at least three airport board members, who approved the authority’s $2.5 million marketing contract with Greenhaus Inc., a San Diego-based marketing firm. The company designed the report and has been the leading force behind a makeover for the authority as it embarks on a $1 billion expansion at Lindbergh Field.

The board members, Ramona Finnila, City Councilman Tony Young and Jim Panknin, questioned the expense and said they were also unaware of the $86,000 logo redesign.

The airport’s existing logo — a jet shooting up through a hunter-green globe — was unveiled when the authority was created in 2003. In the six years since, the agency has struggled with its image, most notably after voters rejected the authority’s 2006 ballot initiative that proposed moving the international airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Lucero said the logo is being redesigned to eliminate any confusion between the airport and the authority, which runs it, as well as to reflect a “new phase” for the airport as the expansion begins. “A strong and good brand must clearly state what an airport stands for and how it differentiates itself from its competitors among airports in other cities,” Lucero said.

The authority doesn’t know when it will pick a logo. After months of work, the agency rejected the final designs that Greenhaus proposed, according to internal e-mails obtained through a California Public Records Act request. The authority has instructed Greenhaus to hire a subcontractor to present other options.

Lucero said Greenhaus has remained involved in the project and that none of its proposed logos have been “completely discounted from possible consideration.” The authority currently has $10,000 left in its logo-design budget.

That $95,000 design budget doesn’t include the cost of replacing the old logo, which is engraved on every airport cement trash bin and printed on the authority’s letterhead and business cards. Lucero said the agency doesn’t have an estimated cost for replacing the old logo because the new one will be phased in.

Bennett Peji, owner of Bennett Peji Design, a downtown San Diego marketing firm, said replacing logos on things such as signs, business cards and letterhead can easily cost a public agency $100,000.

“You get to six figures pretty fast when it comes to the things you put the logo on,” he said.

The authority’s expenditures outpace what other agencies have spent on similar projects. The San Diego County Water Authority budgets $50,000 annually for its annual report, spokesman John Liarakos said. The Unified Port of San Diego spent $27,000 to design, print and mail its annual report, spokesman John Gilmore said. The port spent $28,000 redesigning its logo in 2002, he said.

San Diego Unified School District’s new logo, unveiled in August, was free. Greenhaus, the same design firm working for the airport, donated its time to the district. Bernie Rhinerson, the chief district relations officer, said he’d known the firm’s two principals for decades and approached them with the idea. He estimated that they’d donated $30,000 in design work.

“We could never afford to go out and do this kind of work,” Rhinerson said. “We’re very grateful.”

Marketing professionals said the authority’s $95,000 logo budget isn’t uncommon. Peji said designing a logo for a public agency can cost $150,000 and be more difficult than for private companies because the result must satisfy a broad constituency.

“For the breadth of what they have to encompass, you can’t screw that up,” Peji said. “The onus is very heavy on the agency to nail this thing. I certainly wouldn’t be gambling with the identity. I’d hire the best gun I could.”

Cowell said the authority’s expense puts the project in the “upper echelon” of logo design work for a public agency. The authority had a $42,000 budget to design a logo for its airport art program, which it spends $380,000 on annually.

Peji and Cowell both said logo redesigns shouldn’t be undertaken lightly. “Once you have an identity it becomes the face to the world,” Cowell said. Public agencies that change their mission, however, are well-positioned to redesign their logo, Peji said.

“It’s the best vehicle to tell people there’s something new about us — we’re not what you thought we were,” Peji said.

Authority board members said they wanted to know more about the expenses. Panknin said he’d raised questions about last year’s annual report, which he thought looked too “ostentatious.” This year’s report, he said, looked more frugal. It wasn’t. Invoices show it cost $6,000 more to produce.

Young said he was concerned and wanted to learn more about the logo and hiring of models. Finnila said she did, too.

“The board has never discussed getting a new logo or hiring models,” she said. “I’ll definitely look into it.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/robwdavis. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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