When we attend journalism conferences, we're told over and over again that if we're not constantly submitting official requests for public records, we're not doing our job. A records request is the way to get information about the dirty deeds people do with our money, moves people make when they think no one's watching. The tricky part is coming up with the hunch that prompts us to ask the right agency for the right records. Going out on unfocused story-hunting trips can be time-consuming and yield little.
That's why we're always impressed when a local journalist uncovers something juicy with a document search. We don't know what gave the Union-Tribune the idea to ask the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority for finance reports-maybe reporters there are asking all local public agencies for them-but the request yielded a great story that everyone who travels by air should read. Not only that, but the story also included some revealing answers when reporter Craig Gustafson asked the authority's chief executive to comment on the findings.
In fact, the two-pronged story, which led the U-T's B section on Sunday, should have been flip-flopped with the feature story about San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne, which was place above the fold on Page A1 despite not telling us much we that we didn't already know.
The Airport Authority, in existence since 2003, runs Lindbergh Field, San Diego's international airport, and was charged with identifying alternatives for new airport sites in the region to help keep up with future air-travel and cargo demands, a task at which the agency monumentally failed last year when voters said overwhelmingly that they didn't want a new civilian airport adjacent to the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station.
Gustafson reported, in two separate stories, that the authority spent $466,000 in business and travel expenses from 2003 through 2006 and $665,000 on relocating 10 executives to San Diego. Among the most galling facts uncovered were:
* A $536 dinner-not including a $154 bottle of wine that the authority didn't pay for-for five people in the authority's travel party to London, where they were trying to coax Virgin Atlantic Airways to bring flights to San Diego. Thella Bowens, the authority's top executive, dismissed questions about impropriety, saying that $107 per person isn't all that much considering the exchange rate in Europe.
Yes, the dollar doesn't go as far as it used to in England, but you know what? Bullshit! CityBeat researcher extraordinaire Kelly Davis, who was in England a few weeks ago, checked Time Out London for prices at a range of restaurants and found that few meals cost more than about £40 per person-including alcohol. The current equivalent of $107 is around £55. One can get a nice meal in London for £25 to £30. And, of course, the group stayed at a five-star hotel.
* Authority personnel took roughly 160 trips to aviation conferences in four years-40 conferences a year to places such as Hawaii, Bermuda, Germany, France and Portugal-costing $273,000. Bowens herself traveled to New Zealand, Tokyo, the Philippines and Portugal (to pick up an award). Did she really have to go to New Zealand?
* Former executive board member Xema Jacobson-who was paid an annual salary of $171,648-flew first class to a conference in Hawaii while board member and San Diego Councilmember Tony Young flew to the same conference in coach. Jacobson's bill was $2,493; Young's was $546. Shame on Bowens and her crew for reimbursing Jacobson over and above the price of Young's ticket. Jacobson's flight must have been booked during Hawaii's tourist season, because we checked last-minute first-class fares to Honolulu through Expedia, from Thursday to Sunday, and the most expensive flight was $1,776 round-trip.
* The Airport Authority paid nearly $200,000 in closing costs on new homes purchased by 10 executives lured to work for the authority. Bowens told the U-T that the authority's research showed that other airport agencies offer similar benefits, but the documentation proves otherwise.
It would be one thing of this were a private company. True, this isn't local tax money, but much of it is financed by fees paid directly by those of us who travel by air, or by the airlines, which pass their costs on to us. We're sitting back there in coach, eating animal crackers and paying for headphones amongst the crying babies, and we're helping pay for well-off people like Xema Jacobson to fly first-class to Hawaii and for Bowens to pick up a plaque in Portugal.
Bowens should have said, 'Yes, Craig Gustafson, you've uncovered a bit of a problem, and we'll try to do better,' but instead she said $107 just can't buy you a decent meal in London and misrepresented the facts concerning the financing of closing costs. Thella Bowens should be fired. We regular folk simply can't afford her.
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