Tuesday, May 02, 2006 | Once the airport authority picks an airport site and approves accompanying ballot language, its board members will hold a workshop to discuss the message the authority’s public relations team should deliver.
The decision came Monday after an attorney hired by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority cautioned board members about how the public may interpret the authority’s outreach the closer Election Day draws.
“The view may be that the only reason you’re putting information out a week before [the election] is to influence opinion,” said election law attorney Lance Olson. Some lines between education and advocacy are clearly delineated, he said. Others can be blurry.
Monday’s discussion was prompted by criticism of the $3.8 million outreach contract with GCS Public Relations, which came under scrutiny after a voiceofsandiego.org review of the company’s work. Critics have alleged the outreach campaign has crossed the line from education into advocacy, which is prohibited by state law.
Olson, who was retained by the authority late last year, said the authority’s outreach he has reviewed did not violate state laws prohibiting the authority from spending funds to advocate for specific sites.
While agreeing to the deeper discussion after making a decision in June for the ballot initiative, board members also voted 7-2 to extend the life of the $3.8 million outreach contract with GCS Public Relations. The contract’s monetary value was not changed; board members Xema Jacobson and Mary Teresa Sessom dissented.
The board balked at a review of GCS’s current efforts, however. Members voted 5-4 not to examine the current philosophy and messages disseminated by GCS, the San Diego-based firm formed in 2001 by Tom Gable, Rick Cook and Jon Schmid.
GCS, which signed its public outreach contract in Nov. 2004, was hired to help the airport authority to educate the public about the airport site-selection process. Led on this project by Cook and Schmid, who each bill $200 hourly, the firm prepares speaking points so the authority presents a united voice on site-selection issues. They write speeches, hire pollsters and recruit opinion leaders to endorse the authority’s mission.
Board member William D. Lynch said the board had enough to decide in the next five weeks – in-depth analysis of the costs of building an airport at three military bases is due in less than two weeks – and said he feared any review “stops us in our tracks.”
Lynch said he agreed with the outreach’s message, but questioned its effectiveness. Public outreach efforts such as frequently held coffee klatches were “ill-advised,” Lynch said.
“I have always thought that the idea of going to talk to the public before we make a decision would not be effective,” Lynch said.
Sessom was in the minority supporting the review, saying the outreach campaign overreaches its legal boundaries. She criticized it for trying to convince voters that Lindbergh Field can’t become a viable airport.
The public outreach has focused on the conflict between the airport’s small size and its growing passenger demand. The authority projects Lindbergh, which sits on 661 acres in Point Loma, could face capacity problems by 2015.
Sessom took issue with the current plan. She said had not approved a strategy that would allow GCS to ghostwrite third-party opinion pieces for community leaders. She cited the $3,160 that GCS billed the authority for its role in helping Midge Costanza, president of a local public policy institute, draft an opinion article calling for more leadership on the airport debate from local leaders.
Sessom questioned polls sanctioned by GCS showing a shift in public opinion since outreach began. More residents support studying military sites and more believe Lindbergh Field won’t support future demand. Sessom said the results were spurred by the outreach campaign.
But Lynch said the two aren’t related. The board’s extensive site search evoked the opinion shift, he said. The authority was able to find just four non-military sites, Lynch said, and none are viable solutions because each is too far from San Diego.
“Those facts,” he said, “focused the public’s mind.”
In other action, by a 6-3 vote the authority rejected building a North County airport to supplement Lindbergh Field. The supplemental airport had been rejected in February, but resurfaced after three board members – Robert L. Maxwell, Jacobson and Sessom – said the initial look at airport near Escondido was dismissed prematurely.
“No site has been eliminated on the basis that it was financially infeasible,” Maxwell said. “Why are we doing it with this site?”
The reason, Lynch said, is that an airport site 38 miles away would be too far from downtown. An airport consultant predicted a supplemental airport would cost as much as a major metropolitan airport, but serve just a fraction of the travelers.
Sessom, who requested the second review, said she had not expected it to succeed, but wanted the public to know the authority was trying to exhaust all its non-military options.
The authority board also cleared the agenda for its June 5 meeting with the intention of choosing a site for the November ballot that day.
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