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While preparing to ask Monterey County voters to approve a sales tax increase to finance highway improvements, the Transportation Agency for Monterey County is also preparing to repay the state $821,858 because an audit found the agency had failed to follow standard procurement procedures when it awarded four construction-related contracts totaling $9.4 million.

The procurement problems, including lack of competitive bidding, loose purchasing protocols and non-existent spending limits, were uncovered in a Caltrans audit of TAMC contracts from for July 2011 through May 2013.

A 2014 letter from Caltrans to TAMC identifies the recipients of those contracts as the Parsons Transportation Group, which is one of the nation’s largest engineering and consulting firms, and a California company, Harris & Associates, which maintains an office in Salinas.

TAMC originally awarded Parsons a $974,000 contract to design light rail systems connecting Monterey to Marina and beyond and connecting Salinas to the Bay Area. Caltrans auditors complained that the contract was awarded without appropriate competition, without any valid cost estimate for the work to be performed, and without any cost cap or completion date. Over time, the contract was amended and extended 12 times and ended up costing TAMC just under $9 million although the rail projects remain unfunded. As with most TAMC projects, Caltrans was the source of most of the money.

As a result of the audit, Caltrans initially sought to collect some $9.4 million from TAMC, contending that numerous standard contracting procedures were violated. In one case, Harris received a contract after having been hired to essentially write the specifications for that contract, Caltrans found. Auditors contended that amounted to a conflict of interest.

TAMC officials disputed most of the points raised in the audit but have adopted numerous procedural changes recommended by Caltrans and have agreed to provide procurement training to its staff.

While Caltrans sought to recover the $9.4 million,  two years of negotiations between the agencies resulted in an agreement in June under which TAMC will reimburse Caltrans $821,585 each year for 10 years. The money is to come from the local agency’s reserve funds. The agency’s executive director, Debbie Hale, told her board of directors that the agency could pay the full amount now but decided it would be better to keep the reserve fund healthy.

TAMC is essentially a transportation planning agency and joint powers agency linking most of the political jurisdictions in the county. It is governed by a board consisting of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and representatives of most of the cities in the county along with other agencies. The Caltrans audit faulted TAMC for having lent money in the past to some of the member agencies, most recently Monterey-Salinas Transit.

Hale said this week that her staff provided Caltrans with ample documentation to disprove many of the audit findings, “but basically they had their mind made up – you can tell that by the tone of the audit.”

She denied that Harris was involved in any conflict of interest and said that regional Caltrans officials approved TAMC’s processes only to be overruled by state-level officials.

Hale said TAMC agreed to receive additional training so the agency, along with regional Caltrans officials, can understand what the auditors want to see. She said the agency has prepared a 200-page procurement manual that awaits Caltrans approval. Among the auditors’ concerns was that the agency had few written guidelines for procurements and the awarding of contracts.

Hale said the state agency appears to be conducting audits of relatively small transportation agencies in an effort to prop up its budget because it is difficult for a state agency to increase its revenues. Such actions, she said, demonstrate why TAMC needs an additional revenue stream, the planned sales tax measure.

“Frankly, this is exactly why we need local money. It is locally controlled with local oversight, and the state can’t take it away.”

The agency hopes to put a sales tax measure on countywide ballot next year, one that would raise the sales tax by three eights of a cent. Because of other potential tax measures on the ballot, however, the amount sought might have to be lowered.

The larger amount would raise about $20 million annually, some of which would be used directly for road work and some of which would be used to leverage additional state and federal dollars.

TAMC has been conducting surveys and performing various outreach efforts in preparation for the tax measure. It awarded a $135,000 contract earlier this year for those purposes. TAMC’s last effort to boost the sales tax received a majority vote but fell short of the required two-thirds vote.

The audit and the $821,000 penalty are no secret – many of the details are posted online — they have received virtually no public attention until now, something of a surprise considering that more than a dozen elected officials sit on the TAMC board. One board member, who asked not to be identified, speculated that no board members “saw any advantage to speaking up.” A representative of the Monterey County Taxpayers Association was at a TAMC board meeting in June at which Hale gave a brief update on the plan to reimburse the state.


Saving the world, one red fence at a time


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Some readers of the Monterey Herald will glance at this column and mutter, “Oh no, not that damn fence again,” and who can blame them. The dilapidated red fence along otherwise scenic Highway 68 and the otherwise lovely Laguna Seca golf course became a rather tiresome subject in the venerable daily some three years ago, and the attention did nothing to correct its sorry state.

But that fence—let’s come right out and call it that ugly fence—deserves attention. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either an eyesore or a neglected artifact worthy of repair and preservation. I write about it here because a letter to the editor of the Herald a couple weeks back resurrected the issue, and because I have an idea, one that may satisfy both camps.

As it is, it’s a mess. In all, it amounts to a little more than a half mile of fencing, some upright but much of it toppled and tangled with the brush. There are gaps, many of them quite large. If there were a beauty contest for fences, it would be disqualified early for lack of integrity.

During the last round of attention, no one stepped up to take responsibility for the fence. As it is along Highway 68, a state highway, a case could be made that it is the state’s responsibility. Calls to state highway officials three years ago, however, resulted in nothing more than perplexity and empty promises to “look into it.” A case also could be made that it is the responsibility of the landowners along the route. A section of the Monterey County ordinances suggests strongly that county officials can and should require said landowners to remove or repair eyesores. Significant sections of the fence may reside on the golf course property, but the manager there made it clear three years ago that he had no sense of responsibility. For the fence, that is. Could the county force the issue? It could but it won’t.

After the Herald opined about the sorry state of the fence, readers responded with observations, memories and theories about its origin and purpose. The most definitive account came from Julie Work Beck, a Corral de Tierra resident, whose grandfather owned ranch land on one side. Here is a piece she wrote at the time, slightly abridged.

The red fence definitely dates from the 1930s, if not earlier. It extended from York Road past the current Laguna Seca area. It was built by Esteban (Steve) Field on property owned by him and his sister, Maria Antonia Field. The two inherited the property from their father, Tom Field, who married Maria Munras. Maria Antonia Field kept her residence across the highway in the hacienda, now a horse ranch with a watering hole close to the highway.

The entrance to Lady Field’s home was gated, as it still is, and to the left, was a box with a phone one would open to call the house to ask for admssion. I remember doing this as a child on the occasion of visits to Lady Field.

Lady Field as she was called for short, was given the title of Her Excellimentissima Maria Antonia Field in the 1930s or the 1940s by the then-pope (Pius XII?) for her work and support of the restoration of Carmel Mission and her help to Father Ramon Mestres. Lady Field and Steve Field were the children of Tom Field and Maria Munras of Spanish Rancho land grant times.

Tom Field was a clever Scot, as was my grandfather, T.A. Work, who owned the ranch lands on the other side of the road. These two Toms were known countywide for their skill and perceptiveness and had great influence in the county on land matters. My grandfather assembled the ranch on the south side of the road from different sources, but mainly from purchase from David Jacks, also a Scot. My grandfather’s ranch lands were enclosed by barbed wire ranch fencing to keep his cattle on his property. But Steve Field erected a beautiful decorative fence — the red and white fence still remaining in differing states of repair or disrepair.

My grandfather told him the fence was a huge waste of money and a frivolous piece of vanity. T.A. Work was not wrong about much in the realm of property and money, but I have to say he was wrong about this. For this fence to be still standing, even in its state of disrepair after close to 100 years, is a tribute in its own right.


Until Beck and others weighed in about the history, I was all for tearing the fence out. But she and they have convinced me otherwise.

So here’s the idea. Unfortunately, it will require a committee, but that is not always a guarantee of failure. It also will require a work crew. Beyond that, it gets simple: We tear out the worst sections of the fence, the parts flattened against the ground, the really ugly parts. We leave the rest of it alone to be enjoyed by history buffs for at least another few decades. Unless we decide to paint it, which isn’t really all that hard.

Why not restore the fence, either all the portions that remain or the whole thing? Because that would require capital in addition to labor, and as much as I dislike the fence in its current condition, if I’m going to be involved in fundraising, I have more important fish to fry and so do you.

If the fence really is the responsibility of the state, we might be informed of that early on, and if the golf course operator accuses us of trespass, we’ll have another useful answer. Fine, we’ll say as we walk away, you fix it.

Consider it a test. There are many larger issues that need attention, of course, challenges that seem exceptionally daunting. Our water issue, for instance. Already I know that we’ll be told that it is foolish to worry about a fence when there are children starving anywhere, but the same could be said about just about any idea, couldn’t it? If we could find a measure of success with the fence, maybe it would restore our confidence in our collective ability to solve bigger problems.

So what do you think? And who wants to chair this committee? I’m tempted to nominate Julie Beck and Mike Weaver of the Highway 68 Coalition. Surely there are other potential candidates for both the talking and doing parts of the mission. I’ve got some work gloves somewhere and am prepared to stand by for assignment.