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The SANDAG board appointed Caltrans District 11 Chief Deputy Director Mario Orso as the agency’s new CEO on April 26. Courtesy photo
The SANDAG board appointed Caltrans District 11 Chief Deputy Director Mario Orso as the agency’s new CEO on April 26. Courtesy photo
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Mario Orso named SANDAG CEO, toll road scandal continues

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Association of Regional Governments board of directors has appointed Mario Orso, head of Caltrans’s San Diego district, as the agency’s new CEO from a pool of hundreds of candidates.

Orso has worked at Caltrans for nearly 33 years, serving as chief deputy director of Caltrans District 11 since 2022, and was appointed acting director of Caltrans District 12 in Orange County in 2023.  

The SANDAG board finalized Orso’s appointment on Friday morning, with his three-year contract to begin June 17, filling the seat left empty by Hasan Ikhrata in December. Coleen Clementson will continue to serve as Interim CEO until then.  

Orso thanked the board after they approved his contract at their April 26 board meeting.

“I am aware of the magnitude of the responsibilities and the challenges ahead. I also want to recognize the incredible SANDAG team that you are entrusting me to guide and lead. But what most excites me are the opportunities that lay ahead of us. With our guidance and the entire board’s guidance, this goal will be achievable,” Orso said.

SANDAG Chair and San Diego County Supervisor Nora Vargas is excited about Orso’s work going forward.

“You are a true reflection of this region. I have no doubt you will lead us with integrity, as you have done before in your previous positions, and I am excited about the work you will do in collaboration with this board,” Vargas said. 

Orso earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from San Diego State University and previously served as the Caltrans District 11 Corridor Project Director for the South County and Trade Corridors, the district’s first Native American Liaison, and Intergovernmental Review Branch Chief and Project Manager.

Some board members argued that the CEO selection process was not completely transparent and tainted by “leaks” of the candidates’ identities. After supporting a failed motion to restart the CEO search, seven board members, including Carlsbad Councilmember Melanie Burkholder, San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones and Escondido Mayor Dane White, voted against Orso’s appointment.  

Along with managing around 400 employees and a $1.2 billion budget for transportation projects in the San Diego region, the board has tasked Orso with ushering in a positive culture shift within the agency’s executive management. 

At the board’s last meeting, they reviewed the findings of an explosive investigation by SANDAG’s Office of the Independent Performance Auditor (OIPA). The investigation found that executives knew about failures with the South Bay Expressway tolling system for well over a year before informing the board of directors and that financial reports from vendor ETAN Tolling Technologies could not be relied upon. 

After approving Orso’s contract, the SANDAG board continued discussing management failures around the state Route 125 tolling system and continued to question interim CEO Clementson on why things were not done differently. 

Specifically, board members noted that Fagan Consulting had advised SANDAG leadership of major issues with ETAN’s system back in mid-2022 and advised then-CEO Ikhrata to bring forward a new request for proposals (RFP) to the board. When asked why this never happened, Clementson said she did not know.

“We’ve always had this culture of, like, ‘We’ll fix it, we’ll get it right.’ And that was a mistake that was made; we believed we could get it right at some point in time. And then we get to a place where we back ourselves into a corner, and we have to do a sole source,” Clementson said. 

The board also heard from Chief Financial Officer Andre Douzdjian, who announced his retirement shortly after the report was released. Douzdjian said it was ultimately Ikhrata’s decision not to bring a new RFP to the board and that while there were a host of issues with ETAN, they were doing their basic job of bringing in money from the tolls. 

He said management also did not have all the information needed to present a complete RFP and new options to the board at the time. 

However, after learning in August of 2023 that the agency would not meet their year-end financials for the toll, Douzdjian said he told Ikhrata that they had “to stop this.” 

“I know a lot has been said, but I can stand here in front of you and tell you that staff did their best with the intention of moving the project forward. There wasn’t any time we spoke as a management team of trying to hide anything,” Douzdjian said.

Some board members alleged that the handling of the SR 125 situation may have had a criminal element. OIPA investigator Courtney Ruby said that while the investigation found gross mismanagement, it did not find fraud, illegal activity, or intentional deceit. 

Vargas emphasized that “group think” is not healthy within executive leadership, especially when it comes to the use of public funds.  

“If you have executives in a room who are not able to push back on a CEO, and we have a CEO who is not willing to listen, then we have a cultural problem. That is where I think we as a board have a responsibility to ensure that we are emphasizing that with our new CEO… the importance of creating very clear expectations about, the buck stops here,” Vargas said.

SANDAG is facing two lawsuits connected to the SR 125 toll road and has also been contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice. 

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