Walter Mencken 5:01 p.m., Nov. 25
Free Airport Parking for County Pols Ruled Not a Gift
Lawyers for the California Fair Political Practices Commission have held that free airport parking enjoyed by members of the county board of supervisors, sheriff, and others thanks to the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority isn't a gift under the state's Political Reform Act, and therefore doesn't have to be reported on the officials' annual statements of economic interests.
"You noted that the parking cards may be used for official business only and the official is entitled to reimbursement from the county for any parking fees incurred on official business," says a letter from the FPPC to county counsel Thomas Montgomery dated July 12.
"So long as those conditions are met the parking cards do not provide a personal benefit and therefore do no meet the definition of 'gift' under the Act."
Over the years, insiders familiar with the way the supervisors and other officials use their parking passes have maintained that the free parking given to the politicians has been taken advantage of for personal and political purposes.
"According to airport spokesperson Katie Jones, usage is, under the authority’s policies, supposed to be monitored by means of regular audits. However, none of the free parkers with whom I spoke seemed aware of such oversight, nor did they recall having submitted an application. ([Then state Sen. Denise] Ducheny said, “They just offer it.”)
"It is clear, however, that any oversight rests with Thella Bowens, who’s at the apex of the parking pyramid.
"Bowens, who was appointed in 2003, has the ultimate say-so when it comes to enforcing usage restrictions on permit-holders; she also has the power to confer eligibility on 'other individuals whose use [she deems] consistent with the objectives set forth in Paragraph 1.'
"However, according to Katie Jones, the emolument of free airport parking is, at most, a fleeting blip on Bowens’s radar screen. She states that Bowens is simply 'too busy to care' about who lands a pass and how permittees use them."
In its letter to the county, the FPPC assumes that enforcement is now in place:
"San Diego Regional Airport Authority issues airport parking cards under a policy whereby San Diego County receives a certain number of these cards, that allow the cardholders to use the parking facilities at the airport at no charge, provided the cardholder is on official business.
"The county issues these cards to the members of the Board of Supervisors (one member has declined to accept), the District Attorney, Treasurer-Tax Collector, Sheriff, and the Chief Administrative Officer.
"Because the cardholder may only use the card on official county business, and the cardholder is entitled to reimbursement from the county for any parking fees incurred while on official business, the official has not received any personal benefit.
"Therefore, the payment is not a gift under the Act."
The letter does add a footnote, however, to cover parking expenses incurred in the course of state lobbying activities by the airport:
"We note that the San Diego Regional Airport Authority (SDRAA) is a lobbyist employer. While the parking passes are not gifts to the officials above, nothing in this letter should be construed to imply that the passes do not have to be listed as expenditures if provided to any state officials that the SDAA lobbies."
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- Where Politicians Park for Free — May 13, 1999