Local efforts to combat last month's rash of wildfires won the Grand Golden Watchdog Award on Thursday from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, which noted that during four days in May, 11 separate wildfires were suppressed "with minimum damage to taxpayers."
The association noted that the firefighting efforts involved coordination between city, county, state and federal agencies, including fire departments, police departments, emergency services, the county sheriff and Navy and Marine personnel.
"This multi-jurisdictional response was the finest example of mutual aid," said the association, which each year gives "golden watchdog" awards to actions that save taxpayer dollars and "golden fleece" awards to actions that saddle taxpayers with added costs with golden fleece awards.
While there's no disputing that this year's fire-fighting efforts were a vast improvement over other years, some of the other awards were more questionable.
San Diego International Airport, for instance, was given a "golden watchdog" for opening its Green Build airport expansion last summer on time and $45 million under budget.
The association noted that it was "the largest improvement project in the airport's history …. And it's awesome." And the airport officials who accepted the award said that with a few additional changes, the project would be $57 million under budget.
But "on time" and "under budget" refers to a revised budget adopted midway through the project. Under the original plan, announced in May 2009, the project was supposed to be completed in late 2012 at a cost of $500 million, instead of August 2013 at a cost of $907 million.
"There are many reasons budgets get revised," said Sean Karafin, who conducts policy research at the taxpayers association. "The award committee determined that in this case, the Green Build (which got its name through its energy conservation measures) was worthy of recognition."
In the meantime, the North County Transit District got slapped with a "golden fleece" award for shutting down the Sprinter rail line last May at a cost of $3 million because the trains’ brakes were wearing down too quickly, which the association said could have been fixed through better oversight and maintenance. The association accused the district of "dangerously derailing" its budget.
But Matthew Tucker, the district's executive director, said the costs of the shutdown came to $1.9 million (the $3 million figure included operating costs not related to the brakes) and that the private contractor that operates the Sprinter, Veolia Transportation, has already agreed to cover all of the costs.
"The costs may have been covered by legal winnings, but the riders were still forced to take other means of transportation," Karafin said. "Consistency is extremely important in transportation and the shutdown was avoidable."
The district provided alternate transportation through buses, whose costs have been covered by Veolia.
Other golden watchdog awards went to:
• Mayor Kevin Faulconer, City Council President Todd Gloria and City Attorney Jan Goldsmith won a "once in a lifetime award" for their actions during last year's scandals involving then-Mayor Bob Filner and the transition after his resignation. The association praised the trio for helping San Diego bounce back from a time of "great instability" and "unprecedented gridlock and scandal."
• City Hall's Purchasing and Contracting Department won the "it's about time award" for streamlining the purchasing process so that the heads of city departments can purchase goods and services worth less than $25,000, instead of requiring approval from higher up. Those acquisitions represent 84 percent of the city's purchases.
• The nonprofit Computers 2 SD Kids, which donates computers equipped with educational programs, won for best public-private partnership. The nonprofit group partners with local companies, Internet providers, San Diego city libraries and the San Diego County Office of Education to provide school-age children with computers and educational programs, as well as training and technical support.
• U-T San Diego reporter Jeff McDonald was named top print media watchdog for his reports on the millions of tax dollars that were squandered by the Balboa Park Centennial Committee.
• The staff of KPBS-TV was named top electronic media watchdog for bringing forward six of the first seven women who accused Filner of sexual harassment last summer. The association said KPBS had "established an unprecedented level of trust with sources and were a catalyst in dethroning the mayor and freeing the taxpayers."
The Sweetwater Union High School District won the back-handed Grand Golden Fleece Award, which was probably no suprise after four of its five board members were indicted or pled guilty on bribery charges over the past year.
The association said the district is "starting to sound more like the next season of 'House of Cards,'" referring to the fictional Netflix series revolving around murder, blackmail and bribery in Washington, D.C.
The four board members have since been replaced. Board president John McCann, the only member of last year's board who wasn't implicated in the scandal, accepted the award, saying that since the scandal erupted "parents, students and teachers have come together and are working to reform the district."