Wednesday, October 28, 2009

More on those state, sweet rides

Top manager resigns amid probe of idle state vehicles
By Andrew McIntosh
Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009

A top Department of General Services manager resigned and a Department of Transportation employee was reassigned Tuesday as the Schwarzenegger administration reacted to an investigation by The Bee that found officials spent $5.5 million on new vehicles this year but left many idle and gathering dust for months.

Kathleen Webb, a Department of General Services deputy director who oversaw the state's vehicle fleet, offered to resign during a probe into the purchase of $1.2 million worth of hybrid Toyota Priuses, said Erin Shaw, a spokeswoman for the State and Consumer Services Agency, which oversees the General Services department.

"Her resignation, effective Oct. 31, was accepted," Shaw said.

Webb, who was appointed by the Schwarzenegger administration on June 12, 2008, earned $106,800 a year.

The Bee reported that the Priuses sat parked on the roof of the state garage for months, even as legislators nearby slashed state spending, cut state worker pay and eliminated key public services after tax revenue plunged and they needed to balance the budget.

In a related move, Mark DeSio, a spokesman for Caltrans, confirmed that an agency employee had been reassigned. It was part of a personnel action launched in connection with a number of truck purchases made earlier this year, including a flurry on June 30 – the last day of the state's fiscal year.

DeSio said that because of state personnel and privacy rules, he could not name the employee, give details about the reassignment or say why the employee had been disciplined.

The actions came late Tuesday, after Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said at a morning news briefing that officials were investigating vehicle purchases that The Bee had highlighted and would act, if warranted.

"We want to make sure that taxpayers' dollars are being used effectively," McLear said.

The Bee reported Monday that General Services and Caltrans spent more than $5.5 million on new trucks and cars earlier this year but left many idle.

Thirty-seven of the 50 Prius hybrids that General Services bought in February had no committed buyers among other departments at the time. They're now being converted into plug-in electric vehicles as part of a pilot project – with more public money.

The Bee also reported that Caltrans bought dozens more trucks while it still had pickups and larger trucks parked in its yard that it had purchased in 2006, 2007 and 2008, some with extended warranties ticking away. Those vehicles are sitting idle in Caltrans yards beneath or beside Highway 50, awaiting final assembly.

Monday night, Dale E. Bonner, secretary of the state's Business, Transportation & Housing Agency, sent a letter urging Caltrans Director Randell Iwasaki and his officials to cut spending and "wisely" buy only items "critical to the health and safety of Californians."

"Given the impact of the recession on the California economy, and the continuing strain on the state's budget, it is very important that every employee in our organization share responsibility for preserving resources, spending wisely, and incurring expenses solely on things that are critical to the health and safety of Californians," Bonner wrote.

Fred Aguiar, head of the State and Consumer Services Agency, also blasted his Department of General Services for spending the $1.2 million on the Priuses and letting them sit for months.

"The fact that the Department of General Services purchased fifty Priuses and let them sit longer than necessary is completely and totally unacceptable. As soon as agency became aware that those cars were sitting unused, I immediately ordered the department to put them into circulation," Aguiar said in a statement.

Acting General Services Director Ron Diedrich, asked to comment on Aguiar's remarks, said he agreed, adding: "The taxpayers of California expect more from government, and I will work to ensure that they get it."