Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Audits need to be shielded from the public because...it's simply not in the best interest of the public to have that information..."

Opponents Call NTTA Bill 'Kangaroo Court'


Bennett Cunningham
CBS 11 News (Dallas/Fort Worth)
Copyright 2009

Some call it the fox guarding the hen house. The North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), that runs local toll roads, now wants its own legal system.

State Senator John Carona authored a bill working its way through the legislature. He believes the bill will streamline the legal process and relieve the Justice of the Peace Courts from hearing tollway cases. NTTA Interim Executive Director, Janice Davis, agrees "We are going after those people who have fines between $60 to $600."

Tollway riders like Warren Norred think the bill is a bad idea. "I think the layman's term for that is kangaroo court," he said.

Senate Bill 882 is causing all the controversy. It would allow the NTTA to create an administrative adjudication hearing procedure and appoint its own "judge" to rule on fines. NTTA officials say the person hearing cases will be employed by the NTTA. When asked if they see a conflict of interest with the judge being an employee of the NTTA and hearing cases related to tollway violations, Davis stated "no not at all."

But a close reading of the bill shows lawmakers aren't just creating a kind of "court." They are also trying to give the NTTA special power; allowing them to hide some audit working papers from the public. If the bill passes taxpayers might never be able to see how some of their money is spent.

Read Senate Bill 882 in its entirety.

Davis says the draft audits need to be shielded from the public because, "It could interfere with the way they ride our toll road - what they do to avoid paying tolls and it's simply not in the best interest of the public to have that information available to everyone".

State Senator Carona disagrees and said we have an "obligation to tighten up the oversight of the NTTA." Carona is specifically referring to a tollway junket to Vienna, Austria. In October 2007, CBS 11 News followed some top tollway executives and board members to Europe. They flew first and business class using tollway money. Instead of attending a conference on tollways, some board members spent the day touring the sights and shopping. And they were reimbursed for meals using tollway funds, although they were eating for free.

The NTTA says, based on estimates using this year's numbers, there could be a little over 400,000 candidates for the administrative court process. The said individuals would have had to ignored 3 requests for payment, which is a 75-day process.

To avoid becoming part of the NTTA court process, NTTA officials recommend that drivers pay toll costs when they receive a request for payment or getting a Toll Tag which saves 45-percent off the cash price.

The NTTA plans to model the court based on how other toll roads operate in Texas. Violators would still be able to able appeal their case to a Justice of the Peace court.

Currently Senate Bill 882 is in front of the house committee on transportation.

Click here for more on Bill 882.

© 2009 CBS-TV: www.cbs11tv.com

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