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Wednesday, April 26, 2006 | Editorial
Money: It’s a sensitive subject for officials at the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. A couple of weeks ago, voiceofsandiego.org reporter Rob Davis revealed that the airport authority had spent more than $3,000 to have consultants help Midge Costanza, a former public official, write an opinion piece for The San Diego Union-Tribune.
What was presented as the opinion of a concerned resident was actually a well-orchestrated and expensive behind-the-scenes public relations maneuver. Without Davis’ investigative reporting, no one would have ever known that Costanza’s op-ed in the Union-Tribune cost thousands of dollars in public money. No one, that is, except the people who sign the checks.
The $3,000, of course, is not even a drop in the airport authority’s budget bucket. And if San Diego ever does decide to build a new airport, that sum will hardly be a molecule in the bucket of funds that will be spent.
But the op-ed was just one piece of a $3.8 million public-relations campaign that has muddled the line between education and advocacy. Taken together, the campaign appears to use public funds to inappropriately advocate for the replacement of Lindbergh Field.
Airport officials’ first response to any question about their expenditures is always the same: These are not taxpayer dollars being spent. They are airport fees, rents and other revenue from the multitude of businesses and travelers that use Lindbergh Field.
Let’s make this clear: Call them what you will, but they are the public’s dollars. The airport authority should expect and receive as much public scrutiny of its expenditures as City Hall. It’s a worthless attempt at distraction for airport officials to immediately counter any criticism about the contracts they award with a simple argument that “they’re not taxpayer dollars.” The agency should argue that the money is well (and legally) spent, not that it shouldn’t matter to taxpayers how the money is spent.
And then the question becomes simple: Is it well-spent and legal?
Airport authority officials say they have checked with lawyers and they assure anyone who asks that their expenditures in favor of a new airport do not cross the line that prohibits public agencies from spending money in support of or against ballot initiatives. That must not be so hard to do – the legal line in question has proven to be vague. Local public agencies in the region continue to muddle it up and violate it like baseball players scuffing away at the back of the batter’s box.
The airport authority will be asking voters to decide in November whether San Diego should keep Lindbergh Field or replace it. But much, if not all, of the costly “community outreach program” is clearly bent on convincing voters that Lindbergh Field needs to be replaced. And that’s the aim of the expenditures involved.
The ballot measure in November will most likely give voters two choices: to replace Lindbergh Field or not. The airport authority has quite clearly spent money advocating the former and opposing the latter – though its officials continue to argue they are merely educating the public.
Airport authority Chairman Joe Craver says repeatedly that the search for a long-term air-transportation solution is an open process that is transparent to the public and receptive to residents’ concerns.
Replacing or expanding Lindbergh Field may be necessary – it may, in fact, be vital to support San Diego’s continued economic growth. But if the airport authority is going to use public money to pay costly consultants to write something for the local paper, that should be evident in the publication. By not including that information alongside the article, it appears as though the airport authority wants to hide their involvement in the creation of the piece.
Part of the persuasive power of seeing someone like Costanza write an effective op-ed on San Diego’s need for a new airport comes from the fact that she would take the time and effort to do something like that skillfully. But if she does not have the time or energy or skill to write an effective column on her own, it’s not clear to us why it’s up to the public to pay thousands to help her out.
If the airport authority ever wants to construct something as ambitious as a new airport in San Diego County, it will have to make sure it matches its promises of a transparent process with actual transparency so that these kinds of questions do not linger.