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Monday, June 12, 2006 | A couple of weeks ago, I was on a radio show and I was asked about the airport authority’s then proposed language for a ballot measure in November.

I called it a “joke.” It was.

Here’s how it read:

Shall San Diego County government officials make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to make available, by 2020, approximately 3,000 of over 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar for a commercial airport, provided: (1) military readiness and safety are maintained with no cost to the military for relocating or modifying operations; (2) necessary traffic improvements are made; and (3) no local tax dollars are used on the airport.

The most immediate question, of course, that you have to ask when you read that hideously vague language is this: What “government officials” are they talking about? It seemed pretty weak for the airport authority not to at least name someone.

I’d need a really big ego to think it was because of me, but the airport authority did change the language of the ballot measure it is giving to voters for approval. Now read it. This is what voters will see when they go to the polls Nov. 7:

“To provide for San Diego’s long-term air transportation needs, shall the Airport Authority and government officials work to obtain approximately 3,000 of 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar by 2020 for a commercial airport, provided necessary traffic and freeway improvements are made, military readiness is maintained without expense to the military for modifying or relocating operations, no local taxes are used on the airport, overall noise impacts are reduced, and necessary Lindbergh Field improvements are completed?”

Look at the first two changes, they are remarkably significant and they could have very different meanings than the previous language. Notice the original terms: “shall government officials make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to make available, by 2020, approximately 3,000 acres of over 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar.”

The new language says “shall the Airport Authority and government officials work to obtain …”

That’s a big difference. The governing board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority threw itself into the discussion and, “work to obtain” may be a very different monster than just “make every effort to persuade.”

It’s worth noting, as well, that the board decided to make these significant changes to language without a single public discussion on which words to actually use. One guy ostensibly came up with the first ballot recommendation. Then, the committee he was on, as a whole, approved it. The same guy came up with a revised version, presented it to the full airport board, and all but two board members approved that one.

They didn’t have a single open discussion about whether “work to obtain” was better than, say, “arm wrestle Marine Corps generals” – not even a question about whether the word “obtain” was better than “persuade.”

They just changed it. They surely must have had different thoughts on those kinds of weighty words. There are only two options for how they worked those potential thoughts out: a) they came to a collective concurrence on the language beforehand, thereby potentially crossing the line of the fabled Ralph M. Brown Act that prohibits government boards from meeting in private to make decisions. Or b) the full board just blindly approves whatever one guy presents to them without thought or debate about hugely significant words like these.

Either way it’s kind of gross. That is, unless the skeptics are right and these words aren’t hugely significant at all. There are some – not me anymore – who say that if passed, the ballot measure will just be a mere resolution hidden in the archives of the many efforts this region has engaged to solve the question of what to do with the airport.

Moving along. Let’s look at the actual changes, they are an exciting little window into the calculations the airport authority is making right now.

  • “The Airport Authority and government officials”
    When the airport authority first put out its proposed ballot language, it just said “government officials” as if to pass on to some vague group of people the responsibilities that the Legislature created the airport authority to handle. The airport authority board should be commended for putting itself on the line to be accountable for action if this ballot measure passes.

And we should remember, also, how utterly pathetic the board has been at relating to the kind of people with whom it will need to deal if it wants to “obtain” any land from the military at all. The board has not made a single friend in Congress or the military hierarchy. If they are going to get something as significant as Miramar from the Marines, they might hope to change that.

But this brings us to the next major change in the ballot language.

  • “… work to obtain … 3,000 of 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar”
    This, of course, was changed from the totally stupid “make every effort to persuade Congress and the military to make available … 3,000 of 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar.”

It, however, only brings up more questions. What does “work to obtain” mean? Is that more aggressive language? I think it is. With “persuade” there was the implication that if they didn’t “persuade” these people of anything, they’d just drop it.

“Work to obtain,” however, implies a sort of indefinite effort – a “won’t-take-‘No’-for-an-answer” movement.

What does it mean? How far would the airport authority go? Would it send its impressive lobbying team to D.C. to persuade congress and military officials, all the while plotting a series of legal actions to employ in the likely event that its congressional relations continue to fail? Are we talking about a potential fight with the Marines? They may be good in the battlefield, no doubt, but how are they in court?

Seriously, “work to obtain” is a big step. If this ballot language is passed by voters, the airport authority will take it as a mandate to push for what it believes to be its new mission: to secure a part of Miramar for its future use. I have to give airport officials credit for the apparent willingness to fight for something. In two weeks, they’ve gone from passing the buck to some amorphous group of “government officials” to offering themselves up for a fight.

Good for them. That may be, dare I say it, leadership.

And, on that note, there is one final, significant addition to the new ballot language. It’s a stand that voters are being asked to take.

  • “provided … overall noise impacts are reduced”
    This point is a major addition to the ballot language. The airport’s board of directors obviously anticipated the immediate reaction to the specter of increased noise in neighborhoods like Scripps Ranch, Tierrasanta and La Jolla.

But this stand isn’t about noise. The airport authority fully admits that it isn’t hoping for the Marines to simply make way for a new commercial airport at Miramar. They aren’t just looking for 3,000 acres of land and an agreement that the Marines can go about their business as usual, just don’t mind the jetliners.

This is modified-use. That is, the airport authority wants 3,000 acres of the land, and it wants the Marines to change their operations on the base to accommodate it – if not totally remove some of their functions.

Right now, to accommodate commercial jets at Miramar, the Marines would have to relocate their air operations over more residential areas. This would cause a drastic increase in noise for some neighborhoods. This would be unacceptable, most everyone agrees. So the airport authority’s officials counter that the idea still has merit because the Marines, by the time an airport is built, may have discontinued air operations at Miramar. The F-18 fighter jets may not even be used by the military anymore, they claim.

Let’s be clear, the military, whether they use F-18s or not, will still be using planes in 20 years. What the airport authority is saying, and hoping, is that the military won’t locate the F-18’s replacement at Miramar.

In other words, they want the Marines and the military to stop flying at Miramar. That’s the only way you could realistically imagine a new airport at Miramar actually reducing “overall noise impacts.”

The airport authority is asking San Diegans to take a stand against military flight operations at Miramar. This, of course, comes two years after San Diego leaders argued that the military operations currently going on in the region were vital to national security and begged the military to stay – as D.C. was going through the Base Realignment and Closure process – the airport authority wants us to change our minds.

At least they’re asking us to do something. What an interesting debate this will be.

We’ll keep the discussion going at the SLOP Blog. Also be sure to join the debate at the Readers Forum.

Please contact Scott Lewis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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