SANDAG CEO Steps Down Amid Controversy

SANDAG CEO Steps Down Amid Controversy

San Diego, Calif., on July 7, 2016. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

8/2/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

Following a series of incidents related to expenditures, contract management, and mileage tax plans that had critics calling for his resignation, the San Diego Association of Governments’ CEO announced on Aug. 1 he is stepping down, effective Dec. 29.
“I came to SANDAG almost five years ago to reinvigorate this organization and reimagine a brighter future for the San Diego region,” Hasan Ikhrata said in a press release. “Together, with the amazing SANDAG team, we have done just that. As the agency starts its next chapter, this is the right time to hand over the leadership reins.”
Board members thanked the outgoing CEO in the joint press release announcing his departure for helping secure more than $1 billion in federal and state funding during his tenure while addressing regional issues, including airport transit and adding a third international border crossing with Mexico.
“This news is a bittersweet moment for our region,” said SANDAG and San Diego County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Nora Vargas. “I am grateful for Hasan’s vision, leadership, and unwavering commitment to helping us all reimagine the future of the San Diego region.”
SANDAG was created in 1980 by local governments to oversee long-term planning for the 18 cities and counties in the region. Governed by a board of directors representing the area, the agency manages approximately 375 employees and an annual budget—funded by taxpayers—exceeding $1 billion.
Public critique of its leadership is an ongoing issue, with comments at board meetings repeatedly targeting Mr. Ikhrata and fellow members for a perceived lack of transparency regarding fiscal matters.
“His lack of willingness to compromise or authentically engage and consider other points of view makes him deeply unsuitable for leading this topographically and demographically diverse region,” one public commenter said during the executive committee’s performance review of the CEO on March 17.
SANDAG’s mileage tax proposal—a plan introduced in 2021 to equip vehicles with transponders and charge owners between four and six cents per mile driven—was met with stiff resistance from public advocacy groups and citizens concerned about privacy issues, costs, and the legality of such a proposal.
The future of the plan—which is awaiting state regulatory approval—is uncertain.
Additionally, while paid an annual salary of $580,000 with 10 weeks paid vacation, Mr. Ikhrata used SANDAG credit cards to pay more than $17,000 in restaurant spending for private meals over a two-year period, as revealed by investigations by the state’s Office of Independent Performance Auditor—tasked with oversight of SANDAG—in April 2022.
A separate report (pdf) released in October 2022 by the same auditor also highlighted numerous areas of concern, with contract management issues noted as costly to taxpayers and potentially fraught with risk and perception of fraud.
People walk along the sidewalks near the Port of San Diego, Calif., on March 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

People walk along the sidewalks near the Port of San Diego, Calif., on March 27, 2021. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The audit—part of annual review procedures—described ongoing issues related to weak system controls, inadequate record management, and inferior training and procedural documentation.
Of primary concern to evaluators were discrepancies between contract bid amounts and what was ultimately paid for services or supplies rendered, with overages paid for by taxpayers. Such led to a dissolution of trust between the public and government agencies, auditors said.
“A constant concern associated with government procurements is that poor procurement practices result in suppliers or public agents unjustly profiting at the public’s expense,” the auditors wrote. “Vulnerabilities associated with a transit system’s procurement processes that result in exploitation of public procurements by suppliers or public officials significantly affect the public’s overall confidence in that transit agency’s ability to safeguard its stakeholder’s investments.”
Auditors found that of 1,627 contracts, 27 percent had the original amount left blank, and of 308 on-call contracts—which are flexible arrangements where payment is only due when services are utilized—88 percent were left blank, a red flag for potential fraud, according to the report.
One vendor’s contracts, according to the audit, rose from approximately $4.5 million in the approved budget to nearly $25.3 million once completed, a 459 percent increase.
Another on-call vendor saw their bid climb from nearly $1.3 million to almost $10.3 million, a 698 percent jump.
Noting that five contractors received significant and persistent increases in amounts paid versus bid totals, the auditors said, “There appears to be a disproportionate preference to certain vendors based on the totality of contract amounts.”
Such imbalances are derived from a lack of controls and an ineffective contract management system, according to the report.
Since the audit was released in October 2022, calls for the CEO to resign have intensified.
San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, who has been vocal in his opposition to SANDAG’s leadership, celebrated the news of Mr. Ikhrata’s departure.
“This development opens the door to changes and progress within the organization. SANDAG’s primary focus must be on finding a new leader who embodies the qualities of a consensus builder who can collaborate effectively with all cities and unincorporated area communities in San Diego County,” Mr. Desmond wrote in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times. “SANDAG should prioritize taxpayers’ needs and use San Diegans’ hard-earned money efficiently and responsibly.”
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Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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