Kansas Turnpike officials made their way to the capital of Italy for a three-day conference in shadows of ruins from the Roman Empire.
Kansas Turnpike Authority officials on Monday defended a decision to send eight representatives and their spouses to Italy for a conference.
Four of five turnpike board members -- including Frank Becker of Lawrence -- and four staff members traveled to Rome last week to attend a three-day meeting of the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Assn.
"For the board, this is the only annual meeting they attend," said Michael Johnston, KTA president and chief executive officer.
KTA, which manages 236 miles of four-lane highway stretching from Kansas City to the Oklahoma border, paid for the meeting delegation's airfare, lodging and meals. Lodging for spouses was paid by KTA, but airline tickets weren't covered.
"The fact that Rome is the venue is entirely the result of the fact we're a member of an international organization," Johnston said.
Johnston said that he and others in the group arrived in Rome for sightseeing three days before the conference began Oct. 20. Some remained in Italy after meetings ended.
He declined to detail the cost of the trip. Turnpike tolls -- not state taxes -- provide $50 million annually to operate the quasi-government turnpike authority.
"We have a travel budget adequate to cover it," Johnston said.
KTA board members attending the conference were Sen. Richard Rock, D-Arkansas City; Rep. Kenneth King, R-Leon; Dean Carlson, secretary of the Kansas Department of Transportation; and Becker.
The fifth member, Sen. Ben Vidricksen, R-Salina, remained in Kansas to campaign for re-election.
Turnpike authority staff in the travel party were Jon Glaser, controller; John Cillessen, engineer; Lisa Callahan, public relations director; and Johnston.
Callahan was installed as president of the association during the meeting. She is the first woman to hold that position.
"We've had significant complaints from Japan, Italy, German, Burma and China ... that when the conference is any place other than the United States, people from the United States don't show up," said Rock, who is the KTA board's chairman.
"Here we have a lady (Callahan) with the most significant honor of this association -- president. What if we don't show up?" he added.
About two weeks before the meeting in Rome, Callahan was asked whether the authority's board members planned to attend meetings outside Kansas this year.
"No, not that I'm aware of," she said.
Callahan was on vacation and unavailable to explain that statement Monday.
"She might have been concerned about getting burned," said Rock, who has been affiliated with KTA for more than 20 years as an attorney and board member.
In fact, Rock and four KTA members kicked up controversy in 1975 regarding attendance at the international turnpike association's conference in Paris. On that trip, wives traveled entirely at KTA expense.
"There were a lot of complaints -- some legitimate," Rock said. "I know one of the concerns each time is the cost, but people do fail sometimes to understand the benefits that we get from this. Kansans get substantial benefits."
KTA has recently endured conflict in other areas:
- In 1994, a legislative audit of KTA showed nearly 2,000 people held permanent or temporary passes to drive on the turnpike for free. The list included 83 current and former members of KTA's board and their spouses.
- In 1993, construction of a special turnpike entrance in Sedgwick County for use by Rod Fogo, then-manager/chief engineer of the turnpike, and other employees was questioned.
Janet Williams of the Kansas Commission on Governmental Standards and Conduct staff, said KTA members could legally accept gratuities such as free turnpike passes and trips to conferences even if they exceeded the $40 annual limitation that applied to state officials.
"If the turnpike authority is paying for these trips ... it is legal," said Williams, who supervises conflict-of-interest issues for the commission.
She said the perks were acceptable because they were awarded for service to KTA -- not state government.
Last year's meeting of the turnpike group was in New York. The gathering in 1997 is set for Denver.
Rock said KTA staff and board should continue to be present at the association's meetings. It benefited KTA and motorists who use the turnpike whether meetings are in Rome or Denver, he said.
"This is a business. It's run like a business," Rock said. "The turnpike has worked exceedingly well. It does because we work very hard."
Johnston said KTA's prestige in the international arena would grow with Callahan's election as association president.
"That adds, from a Kansas perspective, a little importance and spice," he said.
Johnston said he came away from the conference with fresh insights into how New York officials assessed performance of turnpike toll collectors.
Rock said he attended noteworthy sessions on automated toll systems, taxpayer support of toll road construction and private toll facilities.
Becker, who was appointed to the turnpike board in 1995, couldn't be reached to talk about the trip.
KTA board member King, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, said mingling with experts from around the world taught him there was wide diversity of opinion about managing toll roads.
"To be right truthful about it, you learn what not to do more than than what to do."