The San Diego Association of Governments has been plagued by scandal ever since Voice of San Diego revealed problems with its revenue forecast model, which was put forward to support Measure A, a sales tax hike on the ballot last fall.

CommentaryRecently, an independent investigation into the SANDAG revenue forecast for Measure A found that “by failing to adequately explain how and why it overestimated the Measure A revenue forecast, SANDAG lost employee morale and forfeited the public’s trust.”

While this statement is largely an opinion of the investigators, it is supported by a thorough and impartial analysis of the events that unfolded before, during and after it became apparent that the revenue projections sold to the public in 2016 were grossly overestimated. Making an honest mistake is one thing; ignoring internal dissent that something is wrong, and allowing the public to vote on Measure A based on a broken, outdated system that virtually no one knew how to program internally is a breach of public trust.

In order to improve employee morale and restore the public’s trust, the public transportation agency must make significant changes, and those changes must start at the top.

Here are a few steps SANDAG can take to help gain back the trust of the public.

Restoring the public trust requires SANDAG to be fully transparent with projected revenues, projected construction costs and the status of all projects. TransNet was a sales tax increase approved by voters in 1987 and extended in 2004. The internal investigation was limited in scope to matters concerning Measure A. During the course of the investigation, however, several people expressed concern about a potential $17 billion shortfall in TransNet’s revenue forecast due to rising construction costs that SANDAG may have failed to disclose. The public and SANDAG board of directors, which I sit on, must have confidence that the numbers publicly stated by SANDAG leaders are accurate – a level of trust that, right now, frankly does not exist. Earlier this month, the SANDAG board authorized a further investigation into the TransNet figures.

We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

In an effort to properly create and maintain accurate numbers for planning, SANDAG must right-size the organization so the data teams are properly staffed with appropriate personnel who understand the economic models used to create our long-term planning forecasts. The investigation concluded that a combination of turnover within the data teams, inadequate staffing, lack of training and deficiency of expertise contributed to the perpetuation of the forecasting error and inability to pinpoint why the model was inaccurate. SANDAG will continue to use revenue projections models for long-term planning, so we must ensure the teams responsible for this important task have all of the resources required to get the job done right. Businesses go through these types of restructuring exercises; SANDAG can too.

Until recently, neither the public nor the SANDAG board was made aware of any internal disagreements among the staff about the reliability of the revenue forecasting model. The investigation found that staff had been pushing to move away from the model as early as 2011. While the staff closest to the model were encouraging management to explore other options, management refused or ignored their concerns. Furthermore, although staff members became increasingly convinced the model was forecasting unrealistic projections, leadership refused to raise their concerns to the board. Eventually, staff stopped sharing concerns with the SANDAG leadership team because their previous concerns had not been addressed. If SANDAG leadership fostered a culture of open communication and collaboration with mutual trust and respect, it is very possible the original error would have been discovered much sooner and a more accurate projection would have been used.

Addressing these three areas are necessary to rebuilding the credibility of the organization, improving employee morale and restoring the public’s trust. SANDAG must transform itself into a new kind of organization, ready to deal with 21st century problems, and make restoring the public trust its No. 1 priority.

This transition is not possible with the current leadership remaining in place. The executive director of SANDAG, Gary Gallegos, has provided a tremendous service to the San Diego region for the past 16 years. He is highly respected throughout the state for his professionalism and expertise in transportation.

To be clear, there is no evidence to suggest Gallegos intentionally mislead the board or the public about Measure A. But findings from the report indicate that many shortcomings of the agency were the result of a management team that was unresponsive to legitimate concerns expressed by staff, too reliant on the expertise of a single individual and failed to satisfactorily address the initial inquiries surrounding the forecasting error – even taking steps that created the appearance of impropriety.

Due to pressure from the public and the SANDAG board, Gallegos announced his resignation from SANDAG effective on Aug. 18. This decision is the right move for the agency and the public. SANDAG must now change its policies, processes and people to rebuild the public trust.

Richard Bailey is mayor of Coronado and a member of the SANDAG board of directors. Bailey’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Opinion, SANDAG

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    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    Excuse me but it was reported that SANDAG management manipulated information generally and specifically suppressed emails determining not to comply with public requests for what should have been available. That qualifies as "intentionally misleading" the public. 

    As someone who used to attempt to point out problems and offer improvements before the SANDAG Board in public comment - and in writing and who served as a volunteer on a couple of committees, I can say that I've seldom seen a hearing room that was less interested in hearing, much less responding with interest to what the public - or other experts - has to offer. When seeking to raise my concerns privately with elected officials, I was informed with the same idea that Gallegos was so "highly respected" that there was zero chance that he would challenged in any way. No one would ever believe that they were being manipulated - and worse - they refused to consider improvements to transportation that would apply Best Practices to improve transit performance so badly needed to achieve so-called "smart growth." And so, most members of the public simply never show up in their Chambers. Instead, the Sierra Club had to sue them and won, and has won on Appeals for the most part. To what end? Did they even take the "hints" when they lost in court? No, they did not. 

    And they continue to promote the slowest, most expensive trolley system, almost completely unsuited to our geography. The strategy of staff was always to tow the party line - whatever it was - even if their own studies told them it was poorly performing. They ignored better performing ideas - and continue to do so to this day. (Please see: )

    Until the SANDAG Board is seriously interested in OVERSIGHT and not just the redistribution of TransNet taxes to their own agencies, little will change. None of the Board members that I'm aware of really has the staff expertise - or the budget for that expertise- required to challenge and hold SANDAG staff accountable. This is but one of the drawbacks of a Board that isn't directly elected and doesn't have to run on the results of regional transportation. While the Board should be reconstituted I fear that Ms. Gonzalez-Fletcher's bill does not go far enough, but it's a good start. 

    mike murphy
    mike murphy

    regain public trust?  I don't recall they ever had public trust.

    Gerald Sodomka
    Gerald Sodomka

    Was this commentary written before the revelation that a separate server was set up to hide public information in a folder unavailable to a public records search?  Or before the report that Gallegos wrote a letter to the board asking for the normal period of notice of resignation be waived?  Everything I read by insiders is so self-serving on behalf of staff, leadership, and board members.  No one is taking responsibility for anything.

    With the daily leaks coming out of Washington, DC, where were the leaks from within SANDAG?  It took the superb sleuthing of VOSD to expose this scandal.  And it's a big one!

    George in BayHo
    George in BayHo subscriber

    ... and the elected politicians who sit on the SANDAG board avoid all accountability?  

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    To put this another way, it’s somebody else’s fault. 

    Garry Gallegos has “provided a tremendous service to the San Diego region.” The board was snookered by leadership. And it’s not the fault of most of the staff, because while the staff closest to the model were encouraging management to explore other options, "management" refused or ignored their concerns and "leadership" refused to raise their concerns to the board. 

    In summary, the person in charge of running the organization provided terrific service, while suppressing staff concerns about data accuracy and maintaining a dysfunctional leadership system, and the board is not responsible for failed oversight of the person suppressing those concerns. 

    The board should congratulate themselves on a job well done.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    Didn't I read the other day that Gallegos has changed his desired departure date from year-end to ASAP?  Hopefully, he can be accommodated, the board can find an interim head and we can bring in someone who can do a thorough house cleaning.  The public isn't gong to vote for any SANDAG sponsored financial measures for a long time, and a dramatic cleanup is mandatory.  

    AS for AB805, I doubt the public is inclined to vote for mandatory project labor agreements.  Good luck on selling that one.  

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    Does SANDAG believe in induced demand? In other words, when SANDAG uses traffic projections to justify road and freeway expansions, do they realize that they are creating the very traffic demand which they predicted would happen, and that if they didn't create that demand, there would have been no need to spend our tax dollars widening that road or freeway?

    I suspect that SANDAG doesn't believe in induced demand because as Upton Sinclair once wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

    Sean M
    Sean M subscriber

    Bike lanes, buses and trolleys should be crowded because of induced demand.

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Sean M They would probably get crowded real quick if we stopped subsidizing and otherwise incentivizing car travel. That means ending the transportation sales tax, raising the gas tax to cover the cost of the roads 100% (up from less than 50%), and abolishing minimum parking requirements.

    Carolyn Chase
    Carolyn Chase subscriber

    @Derek Hofmann @Sean M I would agree with you IF - and that's a big IF - they actually had a transit system that was based on performance best practices matched to our geography. Otherwise the policies you state amount to attempting to force people out of their cars - but the reality is that MOST people cannot get MOST/MANY places without a car. And that include MANY of the regional employment centers. I object to the de facto policy happening now which is to rise congestion high enough so that car trip times are so slow that people stop traveling by car with the theory that they can change to transit. But when transit is so ill-matched and funding so uneven (busses vs slow trollies), what are people supposed to do? Bike lanes are nice but very small percentages of people will  be ABLE to use them. Freeway congestion and on-ramps are backed up longer and longer NOW. Transit is not being designed to address our needs and that is what needs to change for reduced parking and other policy changes along those lines. 

    Derek Hofmann
    Derek Hofmann subscribermember

    @Carolyn Chase If we ended the car subsidies today, suddenly people would no longer be able to afford to get to work, right? Toilets would clog, dishes would go unwashed, floors would go uncleaned and so on...until employers increased pay enough to attract people willing to find another way to get to work. So we would have higher wages and lower taxes, not to mention less traffic congestion, if we ended car subsidies. What's the downside?