Wednesday, June 28, 2006 | The question from KPBS host Gloria Penner was framed innocently. Isn’t the November vote about the future of San Diego’s international airport, she asked, just an advisory vote?

At this April forum, she turned to Steve Peace, the former state senator who sponsored the legislation that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. Peace, the man known as the airport authority’s father, reacted sharply to any suggestion that the vote wasn’t binding. It was the only time he has weighed in on the authority’s search. He has not returned multiple phone calls.

“I have often wondered,” Peace said then, “where this fiction was invented that this is an advisory vote. This statute is written very carefully. They are commanded by statute to follow the will of the people.”

Within two months, airport authority members were calling the November vote advisory – a non-binding decision.

But is your vote in November simply a piece of advice for local politicians to weigh – or a binding call to action? While some airport authority members who support a Miramar airport nonchalantly characterize it as advisory, it appears to be a trigger for action. If successful, it would kick-start one of the region’s major governmental bodies into what could be a lengthy, multi-year effort to secure land at Miramar for an international airport.

By contrast, a 1994 vote led by San Diego hotelier Doug Manchester is specifically labeled as advisory in voting records. It asked whether the airport should go to Miramar – if the base ever became available. But it did not trigger any specific effort to secure the base, in part, some say, because the vote’s political momentum was quashed by then-San Diego Mayor Susan Golding and former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

An election law expert said the latest measure does not appear advisory, but may fall into a gray area. Daniel H. Lowenstein, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the authority’s ballot language’s effects are unclear.

“I think if I were a voter,” Lowenstein said, “I’d probably like to know what the effect is of something I’m voting on.”

Can a ballot measure trigger direct action and still be advisory? Some say no, and point to the Manchester ballot initiative as an example of what an advisory vote really looks like.

Back then, Manchester pushed a ballot measure to give advice to San Diego’s politicians. It asked: If Miramar ever becomes available, should the region’s international airport move there?

The answer, by a narrow county-wide 52-48 margin, was yes.

The proposition now before voters frames the question differently. “Shall the Airport Authority and government officials,” it asks in part, “work to obtain approximately 3,000 of 23,000 acres at MCAS Miramar by 2020 for a commercial airport?”

This would give the airport authority a clear charge: Convince the military and congressional leaders to make the land available. The Miramar proposal’s political opponents have also seized on that charge, saying the ballot measure is a blank check for the authority to lobby to use Miramar.

But William D. Lynch, an authority board member who has advocated for the Miramar site, said the measure compels action from no one.

“It is in that sense the same as the other,” Lynch said, contrasting the measure with the 1994 vote. At the same time, he admits: “This is more proactive.”

Roger Hedgecock, a talk show host and former San Diego mayor, worked with Manchester to push the 1994 measure. He said the advisory label “befuddles me.”

“Maybe it’s advisory on the zoo board,” Hedgecock said, “but it’s mandatory on these guys who run the airport.”

A “yes” vote in November is expected to trigger some kind of planning effort from the authority, though its board has not discussed details. But it likely wouldn’t affect the region’s long-term transportation plans, said Michael Hix, principal transportation planner at the San Diego Association of Governments. Too much uncertainty would remain, he said.

“Something else would have to trigger it,” Hix said. “I don’t think SANDAG would change its regional transportation plan and how people would get to the airport until some more concrete decision was made.”

While both Miramar ballot measures have been advertised as advisory, the 1994 vote clearly received more political support than the latest proposal has yet to muster. Manchester rallied the business community in 1994. This time, Manchester said he is opposing the November ballot initiative.

“I do believe that Miramar is definitely where the airport should go,” Manchester said in an e-mail interview, “but I love and support the Marines and therefore urge all elected leaders to work with the Marines for a solution. But a public vote will only serve to divide and a vote has already taken place.”

Manchester clearly has reason to avoid the airport controversy this time, as military officials have vehemently opposed Miramar’s commercial use. Manchester has a business deal with the U.S. Navy to redevelop the bay-front Navy Broadway Complex into two five-star hotels, retail space and a museum. The fragile deal – strict deadlines are rapidly approaching – could be worth millions to the local developer.

Manchester and other Miramar proponents say the region missed a golden opportunity to seize on momentum from the 1994 vote to secure Miramar. With the Clinton administration downsizing the Cold War-era military, the Navy pulled out of Miramar. Before the Marines moved in, a window of opportunity opened, Hedgecock said.

Instead of landing at Miramar, the Marines could have moved to Twentynine Palms, said Steve Erie, director of the Urban Studies and Planning program at University of California, San Diego.

But then-Mayor Susan Golding and former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham led efforts to keep the commercial airport off the military base. Once the Marines moved in, they spent millions on new facilities, firming up their commitment to the base.

“The mayor showed no leadership,” Erie said. “We had it, if we’d had some leadership. But we had no leadership.”

Golding disputes the characterization, saying she was representing the majority of city residents who opposed the 1994 countywide measure. Golding said she and Cunningham effectively represented their constituencies.

“Those that were supporting it didn’t live anywhere near the airport, or they were going to make money from the decision,” Golding said.

She acknowledges the city’s need for more airport infrastructure, but said Miramar still isn’t the place to do it.

“You have to find a way to solve the problem,” she said. “And we’re a democracy. People have a right to have something to say about it.”

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

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