The Bay Area Air Quality Management District's self-indulgent plan to pay former President Bill Clinton $150,000 for speaking at its invitation-only "summit" Oct. 21 is a grotesque waste of public and private money that is saturated with ethical conflicts.
Making it worse, the air district is counting on the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and its public money to help underwrite this misguided event.
Bay Area elected officials on both boards should be embarrassed by the gaudy expenditures and should be called on to explain.
This is not the first such event the air board has held, and the transportation commission has helped fund. In 2005, the air board paid former U.S. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown a total of $35,000. In 2006, it brought in Vice President Al Gore and paid his foundation $30,000. In 2009, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was to be paid $75,000 until journalists rightly questioned why one of their own should be accepting extravagant fees. He ended up speaking for free.
In addition to MTC, the list of private funders included Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips, the Western States Petroleum Association, power companies Calpine and Pacific Gas and Electric, national business and environmental law firm Farella Braun and Martel, and engineering consultants CH2M HILL.
These are all companies regulated by the air board, or who often have business before it or the invited local officials. In exchange for their contributions, the firms get tickets to an invitation-only event, where they can rub shoulders with the people they want to influence. It doesn't pass the smell test.
Then there's the funding from the transportation commission and the air board, which spent a total of $164,000 on the past three events. This is horrible use of scarce public money.
To understand how excessive it all gets, consider the upcoming event, slated for the Craneway Pavilion on the Richmond waterfront. In addition to Clinton's fee, the air board plans to spend about another $100,000 for renting the venue, bringing in food and other logistics. The only contributors so far are MTC, at $50,000, followed by Farella Braun, at $15,000. If others don't chip in, the public will be on the hook for about $235,000.
The total cash outlay for this exclusive event of about $250,000 works out to $500 for each of the 500 officials expected to attend the 61/2-hour conference. Billed as a "Blueprint for Health Communities Summit," the purpose is supposedly to help local officials understand the health considerations of infill development. For example, we don't want to build schools and homes next to refineries or freeways. It's a good topic, but it's not rocket science.
What Clinton brings to the table to justify his fee eludes us. To be sure, his foundation does work on climate issues, including reduction of greenhouse gases at the local level. But this is not about his work, it's about his star power, which air board officials hope will entice local officials to attend.
It panders to the worst insider instincts of the politicians, providing the chance to hobnob with the ex-president while companies seeking their approval for projects and taxpayers foot the bill.
If officials don't understand the importance of smart planning, they have no business in public office. If they don't want to attend to discuss the issue on its own merits, chances are they're not really engaged anyhow -- chances are they're only coming to see Clinton.
The topic would be much better addressed by holding a conference in a university lecture hall, bringing in box lunches and focusing on the issue rather than the celebrity. We understand turnout might be less, but those who came would be there for the right reason. For that, a modest expenditure of taxpayer money, without the outside influence peddling, would be justified.
It's time for our public officials at the air board and transportation commission to get a grip on financial and ethical realities.