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SANDAG Board Seeks 'Action Plan' Following Audit

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks to board members at a meeting, April 26, 2019.
Andrew Bowen
SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata speaks to board members at a meeting, April 26, 2019.

San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) board members voted Friday to create an "action plan" in response to an audit that faulted the regional transportation agency's compensation and hiring practices.

The audit faulted SANDAG for making severance payments totaling more than $337,000 to three departing top-level executives when the agency did not have a severance policy, and for not disclosing the payments to board members. It also disagreed with the agency's tendency to promote from within and give performance bonuses without carefully documenting why they were justified.

SANDAG Board Seeks 'Action Plan' Following Audit
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

The findings by Independent Performance Auditor Mary Koshmashrab got a mixed reception from the board, which is made up of elected officials from throughout the county. Solana Beach City Councilmember David Zito said he disagreed with the auditor's recommendation to more frequently seek job candidates from outside the agency.

"It usually takes six to eight months to fill such a position," Zito said. "And if you're trying to get your regional transportation plan done on time and you have somebody in-house that can do the job, I think it's entirely reasonable to go ahead and appoint someone to fill that position."

RELATED: SANDAG Audit Alleges Improper Severance Payments, Bonuses, Promotions

SANDAG Board Seeks 'Action Plan' Following Audit

An outside law firm hired by the SANDAG Audit Committee backed up management's claim that the severance payments were legal and justified.

Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas agreed with that assessment, and that Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata appeared to have acted within the authority given to his position by previous boards. But she said board members should still exercise more oversight.

"If we're not happy with those policies and procedures that allow for this, then this is an excellent time for the board to regain control and examine those policies, and then put forward the recommendations that we want," she said.

County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has criticized Ikhrata's vision for a 30-year transportation plan that doesn't include long-sought-after freeway widenings, said the board shouldn't just focus on whether the issues raised in the audit were legal.

"Good governance is really what we want to try to achieve," Desmond said.

The board ultimately voted to direct staff to come up with an action plan that incorporated the comments from board members and a list of proposed actions from the board’s audit committee. It also voted to retain another law firm that would "investigate any allegations of illegality and impropriety included in the audit."