Stuck in Traffic

Japanese troops annihilated the entire U.S. Pacific Fleet in two hours. Apollo astronauts traveled to the moon in 69 hours. But Orange County's supersecretive toll-road agency took 720 hours to hand over copies of a simple but controversial three-page government document. Six weeks ago, following revelations that ridership on the newly opened San Joaquin Hills toll road was off by 51 percent, we reported that the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA) had developed a secret plan to muzzle further embarrassing information and stifle any meaningful public debate about what could turn out to be another massive county bankruptcy.

With revenue falling dramatically short of the amount needed to pay off the road's $5 billion debt, the TCA's senior staff privately went to each member of its board of directors--most of them local elected officials--and demanded that they sign non-disclosure forms.

The forms require each signatory to go to the grave without revealing anything about the toll road ("analyses, compilations, studies or other data") "except as permitted in writing" by the TCA staff. (Go ahead and reread that last line.) Avoiding any public debate, the contract scheme was executed without notice, citizen comment or even the pretense of a hearing.

On May 16, a day after "Next exit: disaster" appeared on the cover of the Weekly, we filed a California Public Records Act request with William J. Woollett Jr., the TCA's chief executive officer. That law basically gives Woollett no more than 10 days to release government documents.

But what's a couple of hundred hours when you're having fun, right? As the clock ticked by on our request, Woollett and Co. began enthusiastically stonewalling: ignoring the request and follow-up calls; pretending not to understand the request; claiming they were searching but couldn't find the documents; assuring us of their diligence and professionalism; employing the "they're in the mail" routine; and preposterously declaring that the records had been turned over within hours of the request. That we wrote six letters, called a dozen times and brought in an attorney only seemed to fuel their mad fun. It was as if the TCA big boys--who picture themselves more as limousined corporate bigwigs than as bureaucrats--thought agency records were somehow a part of their private fantasyland.

Unfortunately, fun and games must eventually end. And after we promised to take them to court, TCA officials donned sad faces, put away their corporate costumes, resumed roles as dutiful government employees, and solemnly forked over 19 measly pages on June 16--30 days after the initial request. That's one page for every 38 hours of waiting, if you're counting.

Why the secretiveness? The TCA prefers to go about the toll-road business with a minimum of outside scrutiny. And who can blame them? If you were paying yourself exorbitant salaries and enjoying Donald Trump-type perks while making questionable moves behind closed doors, you probably wouldn't want Joe Citizen to know about any of it either.

Nevertheless, we now know the keep-your-trap-shut document was signed by six of the 12 board members: Peter Buffa, representing Costa Mesa; Collene Campbell, representing San Juan Capistrano; Joel Lautenschleger, representing Laguna Hills; Robert Richardson, representing Santa Ana; Dennis O'Neil, representing Newport Beach; and William Craycraft, representing Mission Viejo.

Their signatures cast doubt on their ability to tell the truth about the financial health of the county's toll roads.

The other six members--O.C. Supervisor Todd Spitzer, Irvine Mayor Christina Shea, Dana Point Mayor William Ossenmacher, Laguna Niguel Mayor Pat Bates, Supervisor Tom Wilson and San Clemente representative Jim Dahl--were wise enough not to sign the agreement.

Presumably, they understand that the public has the right to know all the facts about the largest public-works project in Orange County history--whether TCA bureaucrats give written permission or not.

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