Opinion

Caltrans director’s pricey commute cost taxpayers. Will wasteful practices continue?

Laurie Berman, then Caltrans’ acting chief deputy director, speaks at a 2017 press conference on Senate Bill 1, an infrastructure spending package. Travel records obtained by The Sacramento Bee show Caltrans paid for Berman to commute to Sacramento from her San Diego home after she was appointed director in February 2018. The department also paid for her to keep a Sacramento apartment.
Laurie Berman, then Caltrans’ acting chief deputy director, speaks at a 2017 press conference on Senate Bill 1, an infrastructure spending package. Travel records obtained by The Sacramento Bee show Caltrans paid for Berman to commute to Sacramento from her San Diego home after she was appointed director in February 2018. The department also paid for her to keep a Sacramento apartment.

Sacramento may have Michelin-worthy restaurants and rising status as both a hipster destination resort and one of the most diverse cities in the country, but it’s apparently still not good enough for some state bureaucrats.

As The Sacramento Bee’s state worker reporter Wes Venteicher reports, yet another high-paid state official has been caught charging taxpayers to commute to Sacramento from Southern California. Though Caltrans Director Laurie Berman’s $195,427 position required her to be working in Sacramento most days, she decided to commute instead.

Normally, this would be a private decision, but Berman made it a public issue when she decided to spend $21,000 of taxpayer funds on rent and air travel, as well as thousands more on meals, Lyft rides and car rentals.

The arrangement was blessed by the administration of sporadically-frugal Gov. Jerry Brown, which apparently did a 180 degree turnaround on “non-essential travel,” a practice he banned through an executive order in April 2011.

Opinion

“Our fiscal challenges demand that we take a much closer look at how taxpayer dollars are being spent within state government,” Brown said at the time. “Now is not the time to attend conferences, travel to meetings or take out-of-state field trips and this executive order puts an end to it.”

For a while, anyway.

Once the state’s coffers became flush, however, he returned to the wasteful – not to mention environmentally destructive – practice of letting one of the state’s top officials impose a costly 1,000 mile-per-week commute on the taxpayers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was also noted for finding residency in Sacramento personally onerous as well. He would routinely commute almost daily into Sacramento Regional Airport on Freeport Boulevard in a small private jet, and then return to his home in Brentwood. To atone, he purchased carbon offset tax credits, and footed the jet tab of up to $10,000 per hour himself, according to a 2008 story in the Los Angeles Times.

Previous governors going back to Pete Wilson had lived in a mansion paid for by private foundation funds.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, after some public flirtation with actually living in the Governor’s mansion, arguably not the most child-friendly house for a father of four young kids, decided to buy a house in Fair Oaks.

With few rare exceptions, anyone who takes a government job based in Sacramento ought to, at minimum, be willing to live (mostly) in Sacramento. If she or he doesn’t want to do that, alternative living arrangements should be paid out of pocket and not on the taxpayers’ dime.

If there’s a worker who can telecommute, we’re all for that: zero expenses on California’s dime is fine by us. We’re pretty sure that the director of Caltrans, as important as the job is, can find a way to pay rent and expenses in Sacramento. People move here from all over the state to work in the Capitol.

It’s time for Newsom to end this practice. It’s disrespectful to taxpayers and to state workers themselves, who make up a huge part of the Sacramento community and pay their own rents.

Berman announced plans to resign in May, soon after The Bee raised questions about her unusual and expensive commute. Her resignation takes effect June 29. We thank her for her service, but this set-up was against the spirit if not the letter of state law, which would certainly describe her reimbursement as “economically wasteful.”

We will welcome the new director of Caltrans to her or his position, and we can even recommend a nice place to live.

It’s here. If it’s good enough for the governor, it should be good enough for his underlings.

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