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A SANDAG employee accidentally disconnected tolls along state Route 125 in June 2021.
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SANDAG board addresses 101 Ash ‘decision,’ financial woes

REGION — The San Diego Association of Government board of directors addressed several concerns during its April 22 meeting, including the agency’s recent credit card scandal, nearly $2 million in lost toll funds and potential sites for its Central Mobility Hub.

Hasan Ihkrata, SANDAG’s executive director, prefaced his report addressing an auditor’s findings related to expenditures on the agency’s credit cards — namely that thousands of dollars were misspent on extravagant meals and other questionable employee purchases over a four-year period — by saying the agency is putting new policies and protocols in place to address the issue.

According to inewsource, Ihkrata charged $17,000 for meals over two years on the cards. Ihkrata’s annual salary is $580,000.

As for the tolls, an inewsource April 18 report revealed that tolls along state Route 125 were accidentally disconnected, costing SANDAG $1.8 million in lost revenue. According to SANDAG’s independent auditor Mary Khohmashrab, an agency employee accidentally disconnected the tolls in June 2021. The issue was discovered two months later after a caller notified the agency’s anonymous tip line.

“It was not uncovered because management does not review pay points daily, weekly, monthly,” Khohmashrab said.

Khohmashrab said her department is underfunded and she was the only person able to conduct the investigation into the missing toll funds. According to Khohmashrab, the employee was performing maintenance and didn’t realize the actions would lead to disconnecting the tolls.

Ray Major, SANDAG’s chief economist and deputy CEO, said the agency has conducted a thorough review of its policies and protocols. Now, SANDAG looks at the tolls daily and has “taken all the steps humanly possible to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Mobility hub and 101 Ash Street

Ihkrata also addressed the agency’s plan for a Central Mobility Hub, noting he disclosed to the board twice — once in December 2021 and more recently in February — that plans called for looking at possible sites in downtown San Diego.

However, according to an April 13 story in the Voice of San Diego, the downtown site also includes the scandal-ridden 101 Ash St. building, a $128 million lease/purchase deal the City of San Diego reportedly botched in 2016.

According to numerous media reports, the city bought the property from Sempra Energy as a space to consolidate the city’s workforce. However, it was later revealed the building was filled with asbestos and no employees ever moved into the building. Further media investigations learned a real estate broker had secured a $9 million commission on the sale. Meanwhile, the city is still paying $545,000 in monthly rent for the uninhabitable building.

City Attorney Mara Elliot and Mayor Todd Gloria, among others, are currently under fire for their roles in the complex scandal, according to numerous media reports.

The Voice of San Diego story also reports the “decision” to include 101 Ash Street as a potential site for its mobility hub “puts an end to one lofty goal” for Ihkrata to connect the San Diego International Airport to the trolley.

Carlsbad Mayor Matt Hall was not happy with the unilateral decision from Ihkrata, Gloria and SANDAG Chairwoman Catherine Blakespear to move forward on these plans without the board. Solana Beach Mayor Lisa Heebner also said she was disappointed the board had no voice in the apparent decision.

Heebner said instead of seeing “done deals” being presented to the board, the board must be the ones to identify or, at least, discuss options.

“In a Dec. 3 meeting, we had a deep discussion,” Hall said. “Chairwoman Blakespear promised. Mayor Gloria, too. Mayor Gloria said this board would be part of the process. All of a sudden, it’s in the paper and SANDAG is moving forward at warp speed. I’m very disappointed.”