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El Cajon Mayor Wells calls on SANDAG to probe South Bay Expressway tolls

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Posted at 10:26 AM, Nov 21, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-22 13:04:08-05

EL CAJON, Calif. (CNS) - El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells on Tuesday called on the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) to conduct an independent investigation into the South Bay Expressway possibly incorrectly charging tens of thousands of motorists.

That figure is quoted in a lawsuit filed Friday by Lauren Warrem, the former director of accounting at SANDAG who was fired Nov. 7. Her lawsuit alleges retaliation and wrongful termination and also that SANDAG charged the wrong accounts on the 10-mile stretch of state Route 125, which serves as a toll road.

"I was completely blindsided. Just, even today I'm trying to reconcile how and what happened," Warrem told ABC 10News reporter Natalie Chuck.

The lawsuit claims "Examples of these errors include money being deposited into the wrong account or an incorrect account being charged."

For example, money one customer added to their account could have been deposited into a different customer's account. Plus, other customer's charges could have been inappropriately applied to a different customer's account.

"We are not able to comment on personnel matters or possible litigation," Hassan Ikhrata, SANDAG executive director, told the Times of San Diego. "Regarding the remaining questions, management has advised our auditors and the board that there are concerns with the new operational system on the SR 125 and are taking active steps to address these matters."

SR-125 stretches from Santee in the north to Otay Mesa, nearly to the U.S.-Mexico border. The portion that runs through Chula Vista is a toll road. Warrem claimed that as many as 45,000 people were incorrectly charged while using the expressway.

"Regrettably, it has become apparent that both the SANDAG Board and the public have experienced a decline in confidence in the agency due to a perceived lack of transparency from SANDAG management," Wells wrote in a letter to Nora Vargas, chairwoman of the SANDAG board, and Ikhrata. "To help restore confidence, I call for an independent investigation from an outside entity. The primary objective of this investigation is to comprehensively understand and disclose the root cause(s) of the challenges facing the toll operations."

Wells asked Vargas to place the matter on the agenda for SANDAG's Dec. 8 Board of Directors meeting, and to call on the board to hire an outside organization to determine if there has been financial discrepancies related to the South Bay Expressway, and if so, who knew about them and when.

In a statement to ABC 10News, a spokesperson for SANDAG says in-part:

"SANDAG management has kept the Board updated on this matter and as a result of those conversations, the Chairwoman had already asked for this item to be brought to the Board on December 8th."
SANDAG spokesperson

Wells serves as a member on the board, which features at least one representative from every municipality in the county and two from the city of San Diego and the County Board of Supervisors.

Ikhrata, who took over as head of the regional transportation planning agency in 2018, submitted his notice of resignation in July. His last day will be Dec. 29.

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