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Monday, May 01, 2006 | When a reporter recently interviewed GCS Public Relations partner Rick Cook about the airport authority’s public outreach program, the answers given weren’t completely off-the-cuff.
Cook, who co-founded the public relations team charged with educating San Diego residents about the authority’s complicated site-selection process, first spent an hour on the phone preparing with an out-of-state team member. The bill for the conference call, the subsequent interview and three follow-up e-mails – about four hours of work – came to $850, according to invoices.
Prompted by questions about the outreach raised by a voiceofsandiego.org article last month, the company began preparing a presentation for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s board. That’s due Monday. Two days after the story ran, Jon Schmid, another GCS partner, contacted voiceofsandiego.org senior editor Neil Morgan with an invitation to host a town hall forum in La Jolla. Morgan declined.
The article, based on a review of nearly two years of GCS invoices, opened a window into a $3.8 million public outreach campaign that appears to be working, according to polls. Behind the scenes, GCS has coordinated town hall meetings, prepared speaking points and hired pollsters. It has also ghostwritten opinion pieces for board members and community leaders.
For example, the company billed the authority $3,160 for its work in helping Midge Costanza, president of a local public policy institute, draft an opinion article calling for more leadership from local officials. Costanza has said she volunteered to write the article and solicited the public relations company’s help.
Critics question whether the ghostwriting strategy is an appropriate use of federal funds and say the outreach has been one-sided, crossed the line from education to advocacy by excluding viewpoints that support keeping or expanding Lindbergh Field.
The educational efforts have focused on the conflict between Lindbergh’s small size and rising passenger loads, saying that as soon as 2015 the airport’s capacity won’t be sufficient to meet future demand.
Board member Mary Teresa Sessom said she hopes Monday’s discussion will help her colleagues understand the public relations effort exacted in their names. Sessom said parts of the effort are incorrect and misleading. She questions assertions of a video replayed in the airport’s terminals and on the airport’s Web site. As Lindbergh Field draws close to capacity, the video says, nearby Harbor Drive will become congested. Lines at ticket counters and gates will get longer, it says.
Sessom questions those conclusions, saying that although Lindbergh can’t expand its runway, its terminals could expand vertically to accommodate the passenger growth. The prediction about Harbor Drive traffic, she said, doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of enhancing the road to handle more drivers.
“That’s misleading for a purpose – to convince the public that Lindbergh will never work,” she said. “There’s nothing in that video that says we could be able to mitigate those problems.”
The airport authority is forbidden by law from spending its funds advocating for specific sites. Airport officials, who could not be reached for comment this weekend, have said their outreach is vetted by legal counsel before being released and is well within legal guidelines. The presentation being delivered Monday highlights the legal review.
While the board gets briefed on the outreach effort, it will also be considering whether to extend the GCS contract, allowing the San Diego-based firm to continue its public education campaign through the push to Nov. 7, Election Day. The extension would not require any increase in funding.
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