"One gets the sense that our elected officials and their appointees consider themselves as a sort of aristocracy."
It was raining. I had my two small children with me and no stroller. I desperately wanted to find a parking spot near the pedestrian bridge at Lindbergh Field's Terminal 2. And there was a spot, in fact two long rows of them. The problem was, signs at the head of each parking stall warned that the space was for permitted cars only. I ended up parking 200 yards away and carrying my two babies through the rain, cursing the unnamed permit holders who not only get free parking but have the nicest spots in the lot set aside for them.
No airport hassles for officials, ranging from the city clerk of National City, to congressmen, to MTDB officials, to honorary foreign consuls, to the port's lobbyist, to former governor Pete Wilson.
They are unnamed no longer. A list acquired from the San Diego Unified Port District names over 300 people who have been issued "Airport Parking Cards" by the Port District. Many are government officials, ranging from the city clerk of National City, to congressmen, to MTDB officials, to honorary foreign consuls, to the port's lobbyist, to former governor Pete Wilson. Also on the list are port district employees and former port commissioners. Airline and airport-service employees round out the list.
"We send the cards to elected officials as a courtesy," explains Diana Lucero, assistant director of public relations for the San Diego Unified Port District. "Along with the cards, we send a letter which states that the cards should be used for official business only."
The elected officials on the list are all from the port cities of San Diego, National City, Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, and Coronado. An example of official use? "Well," offers Jane Potter, chief of staff for city councilwoman Valerie Stallings, "last week she took a trip to look at animal shelters in Oakland and San Francisco, because we're going to build one here, and she used it to park her car. That's a good example of what she uses it for: city business."
Lucero conceded that the official-use policy is not enforced for the 36 reserved spaces (18 in each terminal) beyond checking the cars for stickers. "It's on the honor system," she says.
If someone were clearly abusing the privilege, "we would probably take it away," Lucero conjectures, "but that has never even come close to happening."
Rita Vandergaw, director of marketing and public relations for the port district, adds, "We don't have a system in place for checking how much the cards are used."
By press time, Vandergaw couldn't say how much the free parking benefits cost the port per year. She did offer, "There are 316 of them. We value each parking card at $24 per quarter — $96 per year — which is what we charge our employees for them."
Ninety-six dollars multiplied by 316 passes is $30,336.
Though the port values the pass at $24 per quarter, parking for a two-day business trip by an average citizen would cost more than that. According to Lindbergh Parking, the port's airport-parking vendor, regular parkers pay $12 for the first 24 hours and $18 for the second, for a total of $30.
Along with elected officials, certain appointed officials have parking cards. Tom Larwin and Leon Williams, general manager and chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, respectively, are appointees and appear on the Port District's list. "MTDB has a station at the airport," Lucero explains, "so they have official business here. That's why they have cards."
The city attorneys of all five port cities are also on the list. All but San Diego's Casey Gwinn are appointed officials. The current members of the Port Commission and past commissioners bearing the title "emeritus" have cards as well. Raymond Burk, a commissioner emeritus who appears on the list, explains. "When I was on the port commission there was a policy -- I'm not sure if it is even written down -- that if a port commissioner had served two terms, that would be eight years, that they would be voted a port commissioner emeritus. I was so voted after I retired."
Lucero confirmed this port district policy, adding, "We offer our emeritus commissioners parking cards as a courtesy and because we still consult with them and consider them part of our team." Though he says he uses a shuttle service when he flies out of town, Burk says he uses the card when picking people up from the airport. "It doesn't take any skin off anybody's hide."
Some disagree with Burk, seeing the cards as unnecessary perks that aren't available to the average citizen. "One gets the sense," says local government watchdog Richard Rider, "that both our elected officials and their appointees consider themselves as a sort of aristocracy that shouldn't be troubled with the things the rest of us have to deal with. It's a perfect example of the two-tiered system. It's them, and then there are the little people who have to pay for airport parking."
San Diego City Councilman Juan Vargas is, as far as Lucero knows, the only person who returned his card. "In February of '98, he sent it back," Lucero explains.
Vargas, who is the only member of the San Diego City Council not on the list, did not return phone calls requesting comment. City councilman Byron Wear's parking card may have gotten lost in the mail. Though he's on the list of parking-card recipients, he said through a spokesman, "I've never had one, never used one. As far as I know, I've never been offered one. I always take a cab to the airport."
After inquiries by a reporter, Lucero concluded that two people on the list, Pete Wilson and ex-state senator Wadie Deddeh, "shouldn't have cards. That's a mistake on the part of the port. We are going to ask them to return the cards."
The port may get a fight from Deddeh who, though he's been out of the California State Senate since 1993, says he's still involved in government. "I'm a member of a governmental commission called 'Improving Life Through Service,' " the Coronado resident explains. "It's something related to Americorps. It's a volunteer position for which I fly up to Sacramento once or twice a month."
A possible third is Clair W. Burgener, listed as "UCSD Board of Regen." [sic]. He's on the list of parking-card holders because, Lucero explained, "he's the only regent who lives in San Diego."
But a call to UCSD University Communications revealed two things: Burgener hasn't been a regent for over a year now, and five current members of the governor-appointed U.C. Board of Regents live in San Diego. But regents John Davies, Peter Preuss, Tom Sayles, Gerald Parsky, and Padres owner John Moores are all absent from the list.
Twenty foreign consulates, representing countries such as Bahrain, Finland, and Costa Rica, are on the port district's parking-card list. Only Mexico has a professional consul. The rest are Americans who have been given "honorary" consulates. Lucero says the port gives them parking cards "as a courtesy."
Representing El Salvador is David Porter, former owner of the customs brokerage house Porter International Incorporated. During a phone interview, Porter's wife Kathleen, who said Porter was in bed sick, called the position honorary, "though we still get calls." She acknowledged having a parking card from the airport but said, "It's buried someplace, and we never use it."
John Norton, the Swedish consul -- whose consulate, along with Mexico, the Netherlands, Panama, and Finland, is one of five that are listed in the phone book -- said, "I leave my car at the airport all the time, and I usually don't use the pass. Sometimes I use it for official business only. If I've got a consul general or an ambassador coming, I might use my card when I pick them up. Long term, say I'm going to Sweden on official business, then I'll use the pass. It's one of the very few things that the city, or the port, or any of the governments do for the posts."
Listed among the port district employees with parking cards is lobbyist Ben Clay, who lobbies for other clients as well. Asked about his parking card, Diana Lucero responded, "Ben Clay is our Sacramento lobbyist, and we give him a pass as a courtesy and also because it saves the port money. He can charge expenses to the port, so if he didn't have a pass, the port would end up paying for his parking anyway."