When San Diego County voters were asked more than a decade ago to extend a half-cent sales tax surcharge for 40 years to pay for new transportation projects across the region, the agency in charge of the project offered a sweetener.

An independent taxpayer oversight committee would look after the $14 billion that would flow into the county and pay for new carpool lanes, trolley extensions, bike lanes, bus stations and more.

The appointed seven-person citizen watchdog group would bring “an increased level of accountability” to the program and conduct yearly audits to ensure the money was spent as promised, voters were told.

More than two-thirds of voters approved the TransNet measure proposed by the region’s planning agency, SANDAG.

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Now, as SANDAG considers another tax increase, it’s not clear at all how independent the oversight committee actually is.

The current chairman of it also represents contractors making millions on the project and lobbies the very government officials he’s overseeing.

Officials say the arrangement doesn’t violate state conflict-of-interest laws, but experts still see problems with the situation.

The current chairman and his predecessor deny there is any conflict in part, they said, because the committee doesn’t police project costs like one might think – a defense which, itself, raises questions about whether the watchdog group is doing what it was created to do.

‘They Indirectly Benefit Without Question’

Brad Barnum heads the TransNet Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee, a role that involves receiving staff reports, hiring and overseeing an auditor, advising public officials periodically – and, as needed – about the program’s efficiency and project costs, schedule and bond debt.

He’s also a registered lobbyist with the city and county in his role as government relations director for the San Diego chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America.

Barnum lobbies for 1,100 contractors, who he says perform 85 percent of the region’s commercial, industrial, general engineering and heavy highway construction.

A decent chunk of that work comes from SANDAG, and millions from the TransNet bond measure specifically, public records show.

AGC San Diego contributed $500,000 to help pass TransNet in 2004, and Barnum recently met with officials to discuss campaign strategy for a new tax hike and bond measure that may go on the ballot as early as this year.

“Rest assured, AGC is at the table … we have already met with SANDAG’s Executive Director, Gary Gallegos, and have had discussions with various San Diego City Councilmembers,” Barnum wrote in AGC’s July 13 newsletter.

When I met with Barnum in January, he told me: “I haven’t had any meetings with Gary Gallegos.” He also said, “I’m not lobbying for anything other than what’s in this (TransNet) ordinance.”

Asked to clarify his remarks, Barnum said only that his meeting with Gallegos “did not have anything to do with the current Transnet measure or ITOC.”

Martin Wachs, professor of transportation policy and ethics at UCLA, still sees cause for concern.

“They indirectly benefit without question, and the public interest would be better served if the participants in the oversight had no connection,” Wachs said. “It may be true they don’t get direct payments. I’m sure it’s true, but they do represent people that do get direct payments and that is stretching the notion of what is proper.”

Barnum said there is no conflict between his day job and TransNet oversight job.

“I take this job seriously,” Barnum said of his TransNet work. “If there is any inherent conflict I would step away. My expertise in construction makes me qualified for this job.”

Emails over the last three years show Barnum has invited SANDAG officials to political fundraisers, award luncheons and press conferences. He’s also sought less burdensome bidding requirements, support for more contractor-friendly legislation and offered to act as a liaison between the agency and his contractors to ensure compliance with new subcontractor listing laws.

The contractor group also hosted a mixer at the San Diego Yacht Club in the fall to highlight upcoming public agency bid opportunities. Officials from SANDAG, Caltrans, the city and county all made presentations.

This all happened while Barnum was supposed to be also questioning and analyzing TransNet spending decisions.

Barnum, who’s worked for AGC San Diego for 15 years, joined the TransNet oversight committee in May 2013, replacing his longtime boss, Jim Ryan, who retired from his job as CEO of AGC San Diego this year but is still employed there to consult on labor issues.

Ryan had been on the TransNet committee from its start in 2005.

The TransNet oversight committee bylaws bar members “from acting in any commercial activity directly or indirectly involving SANDAG.” It also prohibits “direct commercial interests or employment with any public or private entity, which receives TransNet sales tax funds.”

As written, that’s actually more strict than statewide laws governing conflicts of interest – except SANDAG added language in 2010 clarifying that committee members are only subject to the same level of scrutiny as any other public official.

Barnum and Ryan are paid by the nonprofit AGC San Diego, which gets the bulk of its revenue from members, some of whom receive multimillion-dollar TransNet contracts from SANDAG and other agencies across the region. Neither Barnum, Ryan, nor their employer get TransNet contracts, though.

That’s enough to avoid concern for SANDAG officials, who emphasize Barnum and Ryan’s professional skills and the committee’s advisory role.

“The authority to determine what funds are spent where rests with the SANDAG Board of Directors,” said SANDAG spokesman Jeff Stinchcomb. The watchdog committee makes “no final decisions about how TransNet funds are spent. It conducts audits, reviews programs and makes recommendations to the Board of Directors.”

Others who’ve studied public bond oversight committees still question the arrangement.

“You want someone who understands construction and finance, but you don’t want them to be too closely associated with the vendors getting the work,” said Carole D’Elia, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a state entity that provides independent government oversight.

D’Elia commends SANDAG for “putting an oversight committee in place because the state doesn’t require it,” but believes, “there needs to be a further separation … If that person is lobbying and attending fundraisers, there does appear to be a conflict.”

California law does require public officials to report their economic interests so the public can monitor for conflicts of interest. Barnum failed to report his employment and income on the state-mandated forms on three occasions – an error he said was inadvertent and would be corrected.

All in the Details

Ryan, like Barnum, is adamant his TransNet oversight was never in conflict with his day job working on behalf of contractors.

His reasoning reveals something telling about the way the oversight committee operates.

With roughly $557 million at their disposal this year alone, the TransNet program is a behemoth that involves two-dozen government agencies working to improve the region’s roads, bike and pedestrian paths and public transit systems.

On top of making sure Transnet is spending funds on the projects that it promised to voters, the Independent Taxpayer Oversight Committee is also supposed to ensure that the projects are being done efficiently. So, for example, if the ballot measure said Transnet would fund three new bridges, the committee would ideally make sure that three bridges – not one, not seven – got prioritized, but also that the three bridges were built in the most cost-effective and timely manner possible.

Even though the committee’s charge includes monitoring projects to ensure cost control and schedule adherence, Ryan said the group’s efforts never get down to that level of monitoring. Nor does AGC assist members with specific issues they’re having on the job.

“We have never gone down and tried to help a contractor out … We’re way too big to be hearing about contractor issues. These are big contractors that handle the issues themselves,” Ryan said.

Ryan said that if a contractor wanted to collect more or take longer on a project, for example, they’d have to deal with the city or agency that doled out the contract – not the oversight committee.

The rationale, however, raises some questions: Why doesn’t the group get down in the weeds of monitoring costs? And, would someone else pay closer attention?

Barnum did serve as project manager for the TransNet audit released in July. In that role, he was tasked with approving more than $200,000 in auditor expenses, email records show.

Boosting the Bond, Then Monitoring Funds

Wachs, the UCLA professor, said the contractor group can contribute to the bond campaigns, as AGC did with Transnet in 2004, but “To then allow them to oversee the expenditures and certify the propriety, that’s where it starts to get cloudy.”

“Having participants review the expenditure plans and oversee the whole program who have no connection to any potential contractors would be a higher level of independence,” he said.

Looking ahead at a new infrastructure bond, D’Elia with the Little Hoover Commission suggests SANDAG “should take a hard look at whether what they put in place in 2004 is adequate and consider bolstering its independence.”

    This article relates to: Government, Infrastructure, Must Reads, SANDAG

    Written by Ashly McGlone

    Ashly is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at ashly.mcglone@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5669.

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    I was curious as to why the transit stations for the Centerline project seem to be designed in such a way as to maximize both the amount of construction materials needed and the amount of time passengers will need to make a connection after the "improvements".  Maybe the fox guarding the hen house has something to do with it. 

    Mark Robak
    Mark Robak subscriber

    Most 'Independent’ Oversight Groups lacks independence, including at school districts.  Frankly it seems the only point on having them is to give a veneer of respectability to how taxpayer money is spent.  It would appear that SANDAG is no different.  Whether it be their overspending on Open Space, paying to much for the bankrupt Hwy 125, the list just goes on and on.  Sadly, many of the elected officials to the SANDAG board aren't providing much oversight, so it makes it even worse that the Oversight Committee isn't a truly independent advocate for the taxpayers either. So with all this in mind and having SANDAG ask for another tax increase, forget it!

    VJ Media
    VJ Media

    @Mark Robak 

    Actually, many members of ITOC have dedicated years of their time and many, many volunteer hours in hopes of contributing to a more efficient transportation system as a "neutral" oversight team member. However, when ITOC member(s) have expressed a differing opinion during an ITOC meeting in a different direction there have been certain SANDAG meeting representatives (Not Gary Gallegos) who pushed back with a friendly 'reminded' that "ITOC members do not make decisions, you are here to provide your 'recommendations". Present for many of the ITOC monthly meetings, this was a reminder that yes, the "oversight" recommendations can be-derailed and very short-sighted. The decisions are really made by the 19 (or so, lost track) City Mayors on the 'Transportation Committee', which, is really where the decisions are made. ITOC is a buffer for fielding issues, with an opportunity to wield influence on critical issues. This opinion that ITOC is not a true neutral entity is shared by more than myself.       

    * Your dollars at work 125 to 94 E/B connector- The property is ready, plans, and everything is in place "except the funding" this freeway connector should have been completed many years ago, look to your County Board of Supervisor for that commuter nightmare. What was the point of 56, oh to divert a mess from one freeway to another. great job county government. Although, when we can't get minor repair roads that are in far worse condition that many of the roads in Tijuana how do you think anyone could get that project completed? Fat chance.

    We need fresh motivation and someone who can really get the job done 

    Mark Robak
    Mark Robak subscriber

    @VJ Media @Mark Robak I am sure there are some if not many people on ITOC that are giving of their time and talents to make SANDAG more effective.  But like you point out, when "certain SANDAG meeting representatives" shut down ITOC members, their role is greatly diminished and like I said their role becomes little more than a veneer.  If the SANDAG board had the will, they could not only make sure the ITOC were a truly independent board, but a more influential one as well.

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    @VJ Media @Mark Robak So the SR 125 to SR 94 connector is all ready to begin construction, but SANDAG has spent the money on something else. Those people controlling those funds have obviously never personally experienced the commute from W/B I-8 and S/B 125 to E/B 94 at 5.00 pm every workday.

    That time period is their cocktail hour. It looks like we will have to wait until 2045 for relief. By then, the back-ups at the SR 52 and SR 125 will have joined up with the mess in La Mesa and slowed down the whole of East County.

    Those 2045 commuters  have not been born yet.

    VJ Media
    VJ Media

    @Mark Robak @VJ Media  A few members resigned because of that reason, their time and input was not valued. Prep time took at the 'minimum' of 10 hours of reading/research prior to the meeting to have a comprehensive understanding of the upcoming issues. Then the ITOC member(s) opinion(s) were discounted as just "recommendations" without the ability to facilitate any impactful decisions. 

    However, that is the S.D. politics in action. If you go against the grain, often times the choice there is a choice to not comprise your values, beliefs, or go with the crowd (sandbox politics).    

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Vote no on all bond initiatives, don't even bother reading them. They are all written in a deceptive manner to spend funds in a manner different than advertised.

    Let's not make the same mistake as Los Angeles, which invested $9 billion in public transportation and has lower ridership to show for it despite population increases. Angelenos would be better off if the billions were spent improving roads. http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-ridership-slump-20160127-story.html

    Greg Martin
    Greg Martin subscriber

    @Sean M They cherry-picked the dates to show the trends they wanted to show.  Ridership in 1985 had been boosted by a fare cut.  But beyond shorter-term trends, there's been a steady increase in ridership since 1995.  The more recent transit investments are essential to expand the reach of transit and grow the ridership further.  Those investments provide real options to real people and people and businesses will respond to those new options over time.  Just building more roads would have done nothing put force more people into gridlocked traffic.  

    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    Excellent and timely reporting.  Well done.  I'm sure SANDAG doesn't want to deal with the inconvenient truth while they seek another big tax increase!

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    Brad Barnum is a very likable guy without a doubt.  And he is good with handling public relations.  But there is also no doubt that the focus of his career is furthering contractor's interests in his role with the AGC.  He is correct that people with construction experience need to be on the committee but there are plenty of those people around who do not spend every day advocating for contractors as a group.  The make up of this committee should be scrutinized and I compliment VOSD on looking into this. 

    richard cardullo
    richard cardullo

    That "Oversight Committee" has already served and satisfied the reason it was created for.  That reason was to fool the voter to believe that the "citizens" would have some oversight and control.  The main and real reason was to get the taxpayers to pay the 1/2 cent sales tax increase, and then go through the comedy of the monthly meetings.  I know, I went before them and their agenda is to back whatever SANDAG proposes. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Why is it that after a freeway is widened, 10 years later it's congested again? Is it because widening freeways creates traffic? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Induced_demand

    Does SANDAG create the very same growth they try to accommodate? Other than the construction companies, who benefits from the continuous cycle of traffic congestion and freeway widening? Not me, and yet my taxes pay for it.

    If traffic won't materalize tomorrow if we don't accommodate it today, then what are we really paying for?

    David Crossley
    David Crossley subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann  --So then, if freeways are no longer built/expanded, are you saying there will be no growth?

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @David Crossley The roads can hold only so many cars, so eventually the number of cars will have to level off.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @michael-leonard Are you saying that even if we stop building roads and freeways, the number of cars on the road will increase indefinitely?

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Don't know about indefinitely, but yes, people will still continue to drive on terribly congested roads in contrast to what might seem to be logical.

    Don't think so? Look at any -- ANY! -- large Eastern city (or even up the coast to LA). Their commute times are double ours and they still sit in 'freeway parking lots'. I'm surprised you don't see this.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @michael-leonard If commuting on a congested road allows you to take a higher paying job, then isn't it logical to drive on that congested road?

    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann Perhaps it's the "Circle of Growth".  Population increases > Expanded roads enable more housing >  Population increases > Roads become crowded >  Expand the roads > etc.

    If you don't expand the road, the long commute impacts quality of life.  Perhaps housing demand in that area suffers, and sprawling growth is self limiting?

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Sorry, but I hafta agree with Mr. Crossley's LOL. This statement assumes that people act in a rational manner.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @George in BayHo So if we eliminate that half cent sales tax, not only would stuff be cheaper to buy locally (giving our economy a boost), but it would also stop urban sprawl?

    That all sounds good so far. What's the downside?

    Roy Benstead
    Roy Benstead subscribermember

    @Derek Hofmann Widening selected freeways due to bottlenecks should be on the TOP of SANDAG'S list. To name just two: SR 52 in Santee and SR 125 in La Mesa. This two spots were in the 2004 list of projects. The amount of air pollution in these areas is immense, all caused by crawling traffic in the rush hour. Does SANDAG intend to fix these black spots? Yes! in 2045. Thirty years from now!

    These and other similar freeways need to be fixed NOW!  Don't tell us we don't have enough money either.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    Oh, c'mon sir. You know there are just as many -- MORE, even! -- blue-collar workers on the roads as there are higher-paid people. Please, lets remain rational.

    VJ Media
    VJ Media

    @Derek Hofmann  A road down memory lane, LOL. the 15 connector took over 40 years to complete in San Diego. The gentleman who pushed the 15 N project died while the completion of the project, but that puts the growth factor in perspective for San Diegeans. 

    WE ask ourselves why can other cities, for example, why cities such as Las Vegas (and most others larger metropolitan cities are able to build freeways in a  fraction of the time? Why, because of our small town, corrupt political machine mentality. often times, fueled by greasing palms, obviously a completely different mentality - Who stands to make the most in this vicious circle of inefficiency, certainly not results oriented. Not to say all other cities and government entities do not operate with similar inefficiencies and political influences, but we have a small town mentality, in a large city environment.  Podunk politics. Therefore, we need new leadership with fresh ideas and motivation.  

    Briefly, Present SR 15 was signed after the creation of I-15 in "1968". Since I-15's terminus was at I-8, SR 15 was signed mostly along 40th Street and Wabash Boulevard in San Diego to its merge with I-5. The portion between Adams Avenue and Interstate 805 remained a city street for a long time, and this portion was not completed until "January 2000". For this reason, the freeway is often referred to as the 40th Street Freeway.[10]

    Before the completion of the freeway, from 1968 to 1992...  

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    I am generally curious why the concept of induced demand is cited as an argument against building or expanding roads, but is not cited as a reason for building public transportation. Los Angeles spent $9 billion on public transportation since 2006. According to the induced demand concept ridership should have increased, but actually dropped 10%.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Sean M Yes, the economy went south after 2006. Even the roads were less crowded.

    Joan Raphael
    Joan Raphael subscriber

    Wachs says ...."that's where it starts to get cloudy.". Cloudy? I'd say the storm is already here. No wonder some of these projects seem to take forever, to the point where out of town company ask me whether that is the same project that they saw prior times! And why some of the projects don't seem to make much sense and the area is still or at increased danger. Merging from Mira Mesa to 805-S is really frightening at times. And I've seen other projects that seem questionable. Please follow up on this article and let us see what results we got for our money.  Excellent article.

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