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Airport Authority employees can still eat $99 dinners when traveling.

The authority’s board this morning made final revisions to the agency’s travel reimbursement policies, a discussion that arose after we revealed that the previous rules weren’t being followed.

By 6-1 vote, the board agreed not to set daily caps on reimbursements for employees, saying they could be trusted to use their best judgment. (Robert Gleason dissented; Jim Panknin abstained.)

That directive came from the same officials who instituted caps on their own travel expenses in October. The airport’s appointed board members must now adhere to the same rules that city, county and federal employees follow. They can only be reimbursed a maximum $71 per day for meals while traveling.

Employees, who do the bulk of the authority’s travel, can still spend as much as they want on meals. Bob Watkins, the board chairman, noted that expenses are public records and needed to “pass the smell test of the general public — which you can’t legislate.”

In the past, the traveling public has paid for:

  • Thella Bowens, the authority’s president/CEO, to eat a $99.73 dinner while staying at a $600-a-night hotel in Switzerland. (Her bottle of water cost $6.)
  • Vernon Evans, the authority’s chief financial officer, to have an $85 dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steak House while attending a Seattle finance conference.
  • Diana Lucero, who oversees the authority’s art program, to order an $84 prix fixe spaghetti dinner while at a Toronto conference. A consultant traveling with her had a $79.56 duck confit.
  • Bowens and Matthew Harris, the authority’s senior director, to dine earlier this year at the Four Seasons Hotel restaurant in Washington, D.C. They weren’t staying there. Dinner for two: $195.90.

The board also agreed to require an annual audit of its expenses, but not for most employees. (The board, authority president, auditor and general counsel will have annual expenses audits.)

The authority will also permit upgrades to business class seats when its officials travel abroad on flights longer than six hours. Some authority board members have argued the upgrade is necessary to keep employees fresh when they arrive or to allow officials who may have back problems to travel comfortably.

Gleason, the dissenting board member, offered a caveat to address that: Allow premium travel when officials have a same-day meeting or medical issues.

That was rejected. Tom Smisek, the former Coronado mayor and a board member, said that added “too many caveats” to the authority’s policy. “We could go overboard,” he said.

— ROB DAVIS

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