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Photo by Keith MayAt $120 per meeting, plus 39 cents-per-mile driving expenses, Jim Dahl and Scott Diehl combined have received more than $43,000 for sitting on the board of directors of Orange County's toll-road agency during the past five years. There are worse part-time jobs.
"This is not making me rich," Diehl bristled when the Weekly called with questions about the money. "I'm a veterinarian. When I take time to go to meetings, I'm not getting paid the way I would by a client or the clinic. This money helps to defray the expenses I incur as an elected official."
Oh, yeah, we hadn't mentioned that: Diehl is the mayor of San Clemente, and Dahl is mayor pro tem; thus, both are also members of the City Council. It was the council that appointed them to the board of directors of the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), which plans, finances, constructs and operates the county's toll-road system.
Their double duty has drawn critical attention to the compensation Dahl and Diehl receive from the TCA. Last March, they cast the decisive votes when the San Clemente City Council voted 3-2 to pass a resolution opposing a state Senate bill to outlaw construction of highways through California's state parks—a bill aimed at the TCA's plan to extend the Foothill South toll road through San Onofre State Park into San Clemente.
"How can Diehl and Dahl possibly not have a conflict?" asks Chris Evans, executive director of the Surfrider Foundation, part of a coalition opposed to building the massive toll road through the wilds of the state park. "They sit on the TCA board of directors, and they are paid for it. Then, as San Clemente city councilmen, they are considering an issue that might eliminate or scale back their positions with the TCA. It's a no-brainer."
The proposed law, Senate Bill 116, authored by Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), was not considered by the Legislature this year. "We're trying to figure out whether we have enough support to move the bill when the Legislature reconvenes after the first of the year," said Bill Craven, a Kuehl staff member.
Will the San Clemente resolution on which Diehl and Dahl voted influence Sacramento? "Legislators pay attention when local governments oppose bills," said Craven. "Especially policy bills."
And that's where the financial relationship between Dahl and Diehl and the TCA creates suspicion, says Evans.
"We will never really know where their allegiance was or is," Evans contends. "Were they thinking of their mortgage payments when they voted to allow the TCA to build a freeway through our state park? Or were they thinking about the citizens who took time to speak at council meetings? We can only take their hollow, shallow word for it—and look at their toll road pay stubs."
It was the Surfrider Foundation that investigated those pay stubs, reviewing documents it acquired through the state Public Records Act. According to Surfrider, those documents reveal:
• From April 1997 through June 2001, TCA paid Dahl $25,711 as a director of the San Joaquin Hills arm of the TCA.
• Diehl was paid $17,380.74 from TCA as a director of the Foothill/Eastern arm during two stints with the TCA (July 1996 through January 1997 and July 2000 through June 2001).
Dahl did not respond to the Weekly's phone call to his City Hall office requesting an interview. But Diehl defended the two hats he wears—and the two paychecks he cashes.
"That is the very concept of the joint-powers authority under which the TCA was created in the early 1980s," Diehl explained. "Every jurisdiction that collects fees to pay for highway infrastructure gets to seat one director with each agency. And that director must be an elected official chosen by the City Council.
"So in spite of all the suspicion that our opponents try to create, the reality is that it is legal. And I also believe it is ethical and moral."
Evans of the Surfrider Foundation understands the concept of joint powers. But he insists the relationship becomes dicey in situations where the official's dual responsibilities—to say nothing of possible personal interests—collide.
"I'm not saying there was a violation of the law," he says. "It's sad because it is painfully clear that these men don't see any ethical issue here. They could have abstained from the vote, or they could have refused to take the money. But they did neither. Anybody who doesn't see that as an issue, I don't know what to tell them."