Looks like the East Bay Express’ Bob Gammon saved the best for last. This week’s story gives AC Transit officials a lot more to explain, and it certainly left me wishing I had done all that digging through the bus agency’s records.
While I enjoyed reading last week’s story, it didn’t convince me that these buses had dragged down the entire agency nearly as much as the drop in employment after the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. For a different perspective on the Van Hool buses and AC Transit’s fortunes, see V Smoothe’s blistering critiques of the EBE article on www.abetteroakland.com. V has also done a quick history of the agency’s decline, mismanagment, criminal probes and successes on Novometro.
But this week’s Gammon article, assuming it is accurate, gives AC Transit officials a lot of ‘splainin to do.
I still don’t see that the Van Hool buses are as horrible as the stories want us to believe, but Part 2 of the series drops a bomb that your average shift worker waiting for the all-nighter will have a lot of trouble fathoming.
Gammon’s report, excerpted below, says that General Manager Rick Fernandez and other agency officials have done quite a bit of traveling to check on their Belgian busmaker since signing an exclusive $60 million deal to provide wheels to the East Bay’s urban core:
In all, AC Transit employees, including (Belgium-based) bus inspector, filed at least 163 travel vouchers for European trips from 2001 to October 2007, the vast majority of which were to Van Hool, totaling $947,238. And in the coming months and years that price tag promises to grow higher. Last week, at Fernandez’ request, the AC Transit Board of Directors increased the daily food allowance for international travel to $134, an increase of 168 percent.
Among trips to Belgium were side-trips to Paris, Madrid and Amsterdam:
In fact, as the general manager was on his way to sign the Van Hool deal in January 2002, he stopped off in Paris and checked into the Normandy Hotel in the heart of the French capital. The Normandy sits in one of the most exclusive sections of the city, not far from the Eiffel Tower, one block from the River Seine, and across the street from the Louvre.
Travel records show that Fernandez’ two-day Parisian getaway, including a food allowance and round-trip train fare to Brussels to sign the bus deal, cost taxpayers $735. Three months later, he did it again, spending another weekend at the Normandy at a total cost of $904.
While I’m not moved to rush out and retrace the steps of a reporter who used to work in my very own news organization, I will certainly be listening at upcoming AC Transit board meetings to hear the explanations. I’m still waiting for one director to call me back.
In the story, the transit agency offers several explanations for the trips, as well as the defense that some of the side-trips were paid by the employees in question.
The best explanation in the story by far is from Fernandez:
The general manager, who is paid $260,000 a year, said he takes the side trips because he needs time before the bus-deal meetings to fend off jet lag and recuperate from long plane flights. “I don’t know about you, but it takes me time to get acclimated,” he said.
As one who has spent some time in some moderately expensive hotels in some far-flung locales, I have some idea of what he’s talking about. I would not, however, want to have to explain that to an AC Transit rider who gets home to San Pablo at midnight after spending $8 to ride three hours from cleaning offices in Redwood City.
Photo of Pont Marie by Rita Crane from www.flickr.com.