For Whom the Tolls Rose

Take a moment to ask yourself: Could you live on $14,537 per month? What if we tossed in a free $35,000 luxury car, three months paid annual vacation and loans at near-giveaway rates? No, this is not a commercial for the California lottery. It is real life for a few lucky senior bureaucrats at Orange County's Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), the government-created entity that manages three local toll roads.

Despite such generous pay and perks--particularly in light of their precarious job performances--TCA CEO William Woollett Jr. and his deputy, Wally Kreutzen, would have us believe they are slave labor. For months, Woollett (current annual compensation: $174,449--not including a car) and Kreutzen ($146,913--also not including a car) have been plotting to finagle massive raises for themselves and others in the top echelon of the agency. Woollett, for example, has pushed for his total compensation to be on par with the president of the United States: $200,000 a year. If Woollett gets his wish, his pay will have nearly doubled in eight years. Earlier this year, he prompted the TCA to spend $24,000 on a survey to justify heftier paychecks.

This bit of news comes as official reports disclose that the new San Joaquin Hills toll road is 51 percent below its mandatory financial targets, a mess that could threaten the agency's ability to pay back $5 billion in outstanding bonds and their interest.

Pay raises are far from certain, however. As was blandly reported by both the OC Register and the Times OC, a group of the TCA's board of directors--elected officials there to represent the public's interest--rejected the sought-after raises twice in recent weeks.

Although a third vote was scheduled for Aug. 14, by press time, neither newspaper had bothered to tell its readers that Woollett and crew stubbornly refuse to accept anything less than pay dirt and--importantly--had quietly launched a behind-the-scenes plan to strip the public board of its power to block future pay raises, bonuses and perks.

Based on a July 3 staff memorandum written in superbly crafted bureaucratese, the goal is to shift critical personnel authority from the hands of the entire board to its administrative committee--which just happens to be stacked with members like Costa Mesa's Peter Buffa and Irvine's Mike Ward, who--multiple high-level sources say--generally serve as rubber stamps for the toll road's senior bureaucrats. Not surprisingly, Buffa and Ward have been outspoken advocates for the pay raises.

The proposed change would allow the board to approve an overall salary budget but would give the administrative committee (headed by Buffa and Ward) and Woollett unilateral authority to dole out specific raises. According to several high-level sources, such a change would effectively give staff members the ability to permanently circumvent official board approval in the future. It would also create a firewall between the public and those board members who privately support but publicly balk at raises.

Not all the members of the board are so Machiavellian. At a July 10 TCA meeting, several had questions about a surprise agenda item called "delegation process," which granted the administrative committee exclusive power to "approve any modifications to the personnel policies that have a fiscal impact." Concerned directors were told not to be alarmed--the move was nothing more than "routine" and "just simple housekeeping consistent with past board policy."

After the meeting, several board members told the Weekly that the assurances were "ridiculous" and called the scheme "nefarious."

"I've had it with these guys," said one director. "The staff is blatantly trying to take power away from board members who act as watchdogs. They are trying to bamboozle this through."

For some reason, those suggestions are not listed in the minutes.

"I pointed out that this change was unprecedented," said Ossenmacher, who described the staff's version of the vote as "wrong." He promised to demand the record be corrected at the Aug. 14 meeting.

Another director agreed with Ossenmacher that the board definitely had not approved the staff's plan.

"Once we caught on to what the staff was doing, you'd have to have an IQ of 40 to go along with it," said the director. "The top staff don't deserve raises, but that's not stopping them from doing everything they can to get them."

Slick maneuvers are nothing new for Woollett and Kreutzen. Three months ago, the Weekly broke the news that the TCA's top duo was secretly asking members of the board of directors to sign "confidentiality certificates." Those agreements would have prevented directors from ever publicly talking about anything of substance regarding the toll roads ("analyses, compilations, studies or other data") "except as permitted in writing" by the staff. At least six of the 12 San Joaquin Hills board members tossed their public responsibilities aside and signed the ethically--if not legally--questionable contract.

If, by chance, the board approves salary increases, it will only make the agency that much more out of line with similar toll-road agencies nationwide. In 1995, an excellent Times expos by reporter Mark Platte demonstrated that "lofty pay and generous perks" at the TCA were puzzlingly abnormal. That year, the Orange County agency spent $95,219 per employee, compared with Houston, Orlando and Denver, which spent between $41,000 and $54,000 per employee.


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