SANDAG board leaders deny early review of CEO amid scathing audits
After yet another scathing assessment of agency spending practices, a veteran board member of the San Diego Association of Governments wants an early review of CEO Hasan Ikhrata’s job performance.
He’s not going to get it.
Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall asked for a closed-door session two days before the board’s regularly scheduled Friday morning meeting, citing the results of a recent contracts audit and “prior performance issues that have come to light,” according to a letter that inewsource obtained.
His request was denied by the next day.
“We have a process for setting SANDAG agendas that involves the executive committee’s approval and that process has been followed,” said Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear, who also chairs SANDAG’s Board of Directors. “We are not modifying the agenda based on a board member's request.”
Hired in 2018 as SANDAG was already embroiled in turmoil, Ikhrata has led the regional planning agency through a series of internal audits: Along with the recent review on contracts, the Office of the Independent Performance Auditor also found improper severance and bonus payments and misuse of employee credit cards.
The latest audit found officials increased contracts by tens of millions of dollars more than their original amounts. The agency’s 10 vendors with the highest percentage changes originally were awarded nearly $48 million in work, but that total more than doubled over a four-year period to nearly $106 million.
Vendors are not identified in the audit. While internal auditor Mary Khoshmashrab said more “specifics” will be included in another review that is expected to be completed early next year, she has no plans to name the contractors in an effort to avoid potentially defaming a business or compromising any possible further investigation.
Members of the public could learn the names by filing a records request after the audits are done, she said.
SANDAG’s audit committee approved the report Oct. 14, moving the item to the full board for ultimate approval. Hall previously asked to include the contracts audit for discussion at this week’s meeting, but it was not put on the agenda and he said officials didn’t explain why.
Khoshmashrab said earlier this month the report will be discussed by the full SANDAG board on Nov. 18. That’s different from prior practice — the board has typically discussed the reports at its next meeting immediately following committee approval and even scheduled a special session in 2020 to hear the findings of a compensation audit a week after its release.
In a call Thursday with inewsource, Hall criticized the executive committee’s inaction on Ikhrata and said Blakespear should have called for a closed-door session earlier this year.
“The credibility of this agency just keeps slipping and slipping,” Hall said, “and I felt it was time that we addressed it.”
Hall has served on the SANDAG board for well over a decade. He said the departure of Ikhrata’s predecessor, Gary Gallegos, was “swift” and came as the agency was embroiled in scandal.
“What was on the table then, compared to what we’re going through now, it was a fraction of the issue that we’re dealing with today,” Hall said.
Hall’s call to discuss Ikhrata’s job performance comes after inewsource reported earlier this year that some of SANDAG’s highest-paid staff regularly held business meetings at local restaurants and footed taxpayers with the bill.
The CEO was one of the most frequent spenders. Ikhrata charged $17,000 in meals over roughly two years and mostly at businesses in the county. In some months, he visited restaurants with an agency credit card more than a dozen times.
Earlier this year, SANDAG justified Ikhrata’s spending, saying in a statement that the expenses were for “business purposes” to advance agency projects and priorities. But records that inewsource obtained last week through a public records request show that Ikhrata has stopped using his agency credit card at restaurants since the audit was approved.
He also repaid the agency $380 following a further administrative review that identified four “disallowed meals” — Ikhrata purchased meals for employees but was not meeting with them at the time.
A staff report noted officials “heard anecdotally from several employees in recent months about occurrences when they had gone to lunch as a group and (Ikhrata) had ‘picked up their check.’”
Ikhrata has taken aim at some on the board, saying they were helping generate negative media coverage. He did not specify which board members he was referring to in his comments.
“This board does not allow you to do what’s right,” Ikhrata said during an audit committee meeting earlier this month. “This board loves to come here and take material for their speeches and go and trash the agency — the very agency they sit on their board.
“And from day one until now, I will say no to that. The result of that is indifferent to me. I don’t go to bed worrying about whether they’re gonna fire me or demote me.”
Ikhrata was last evaluated in mid-2021 when the majority of the board voted that he exceeded expectations. Blakespear said in her email to inewsource that Ikhrata’s next annual contract review will be held in December.
He was paid a nearly $440,000 annual salary in 2021, according to data from the website Transparent California. Including benefits and other pay, his yearly compensation totaled more than $600,000.