It should go without saying that anyone spending the public’s tax money should be as frugal with it as possible, but as the article by Jason Rodriguez last Sunday showed, that hasn’t been a general practice lately at Coast RTA.
We understand that those on per diem expense accounts often save up during the day to splurge on a nice dinner, and clearly, there’s nothing illegal about that. But for public agencies, especially those in desperate need of operating funds, ordering high-priced entrees just because it’s legally OK doesn’t make it the right path to take. Even in big cities you can enjoy a decent meal without spending every last cent.
In addition to creating a perception that some staffers including interim CEO Julie Norton-Dew and Chief Operating Officer Felicia Beaty haven’t been good stewards of public money during trips, lunches for board meetings have gotten pricey as well. As Rodriguez reported, in January, Coast spent $572.50 on lobster bisque, salads, bread, tea, cookies, muffins, Danish and fruit for its nine-member board members to eat at meetings that sometimes run six hours.
They would do well to remember the lessons learned during Benedict Shogaulu’s administration when an investigation by The Sun News showed, among other things, that the administration was regularly spending hundreds of dollars on catered meals for each board meeting.
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Shogaulu was fired from Coast in 2004 and pleaded guilty to three felony public-corruptions charges in 2006. We are certainly not saying Coast has fallen into that chasm. But assuming those with the power to grant you operating funds will look beyond those perceptions and understand the importance of a reliable public transit system in this area is, frankly, not good business.
When a private citizen applies for a loan, they are wise to address any lingering credit issues or past-due balances. They don’t want to give the loan officer the perception that they are spendthrifts, even if the perception isn’t accurate.
The details of these receipts, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, shouldn’t give County Council members an excuse to cut funds, however. Any community that relies on so many low-wage workers and welcomes so many visitors needs reliable and far-reaching public transit.
The county would do well to remember that as they examine where its $1.05 million annual contribution to Coast is going.
Norton-Dew, who has expressed interest in becoming Coast’s next general manager, has changed that practice and has ordered sandwiches for the board in the last few meetings she has been in charge.
Asked what type of message it sends to be ordering high-priced food while asking the county and city officials for funds, she responded: “I don’t really have an answer for you. … Maybe we need to look at things differently.”
Beaty also said findings by The Sun News may turn things around for Coast officials and spending.
“Coast RTA has a unique opportunity right now to turn things around and to change the image that we have portrayed out there,” Beaty said. “So if this is an image that the public doesn’t want to see, they don’t want to see us eat lobster dinners and filet mignons, we’re willing to abide by that as leaders of Coast RTA, because we don’t want them thinking that. We have people out there not even making $20,000 a year using our bus every day. Let’s move forward and not make the same mistakes of the past.”
The business of public transportation in this area has for far too long been an embarrassment and an obstacle to employment and visitor transit. It deserves a leader with an understanding of these issues and experience in addressing them. It deserves support from its community leaders. And it deserves diligent oversight by its directors and board members.