Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006 | Planning for the airport authority’s family event – a mix of clowns and Lindbergh Field capacity statistics – was in full swing. The date was picked. The Balboa Park location was confirmed. Even a t-shirt company had been contacted.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s long-planned July public outreach event had been designed to spread the word about the authority’s site-selection process. But it simply disappeared, though not before the authority’s public relations team earned at least $7,517.50 for their fruitless planning, according to a review of invoices.

The decision to cancel the event was made by the authority’s staff, not its board of directors, despite their request to be more involved in the airport’s public outreach.

The cancellation is just one example of a recent change to a controversial behind-the-scenes planning effort – one that has sought to convince San Diegans that Lindbergh Field will soon hit capacity and drag down the local economy. The $3.8 million outreach effort has been criticized for excluding viewpoints contrary to the authority’s – that Lindbergh won’t work in the long term.

Prompted by concerns that the authority – a public agency – was overstepping its legal boundaries, the board agreed in May to refine the outreach strategy in the months leading up to the November election. Board members agreed to hold a workshop to define their outreach plans. But the workshop has not happened, and critics now say board members were only paying lip service to their concerns. Not holding that meeting, they say, has allowed the authority’s public relations firm to operate with wider latitude than it may have otherwise.

At the same time the workshop was requested, the board agreed to extend the contract of GCS Public Relations, the San Diego-based company responsible for airport outreach. In stretching the firm’s contract through November, the board agreed that the workshop was to happen “at a very early date” after a site was chosen, according to minutes from the May 1 meeting.

But like the July event in Balboa Park, the workshop has not materialized. The board picked Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as its site June 5. The authority is not holding meetings this month. And Election Day is rapidly approaching.

Airport officials say the workshop has been delayed, not forgotten – the result of scheduling conflicts. In June, authority spokeswoman Diana Lucero said the meeting would happen in July. She now says it will occur sometime in mid-September, less than two months before Election Day. The meeting has not been formally scheduled.

“I understand it may seem too late,” Lucero said, “but that’s what we’re targeting.”

When asked why the discussion didn’t occur in July – the airport board held two shorter meetings that month and had a third meeting scheduled – Lucero said board chairman Joe Craver decides what to put on each agenda. “That’s a board decision,” she said.

At the May meeting, the authority’s election attorney cautioned the board about its outreach strategy. Some lines between education and advocacy are clearly drawn, he said. Others can be blurry.

“The view may be that the only reason you’re putting information out a week before [the election] is to influence opinion,” attorney Lance Olson told the board, minutes before it decided to hold the still-unscheduled workshop.

Critics renewed their concerns of the outreach campaign this week.

“It was a concern to us before, but it’s even more troubling to us now,” said Lani Lutar, president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog. “They haven’t provided clear guidance to their consultant on what’s appropriate, when they clearly stated they would do so.”

Board member Mary Teresa Sessom, a GCS critic and Miramar opponent, said “it is imperative that this meeting happen sooner rather than later.”

“But it appears as though it’s never going to happen,” she said. “To me, policy decisions are once again being given over to consultants and staff. And we are supposed to be making those policy decisions – not the consultants and staff.”

Sessom pointed to the authority’s July 26 presentation to the county Board of Supervisors as a reason the workshop needs to be held. The leader of a pro-Miramar political action committee joined authority members, sharing in their presentation time.

The supervisors had invited the Marines and the airport authority to each give 30-minute presentations summarizing their positions. The Marines have been adamantly opposed to a commercial airport being built on their base.

Three Marine officials sat at one table. At the authority’s table: Angela Shafer-Payne, the airport’s vice president of strategic planning; board member William D. Lynch and John Chalker, who sits on the steering committee of the Coalition to Preserve the Economy, a pro-Miramar political action committee.

John Weil, chief of staff to Supervisor Pamela Slater-Price, a Miramar opponent, said the supervisors’ only contact before the meeting had been with Lynch and an authority staffer. No one knew who Chalker was, said Weil. He said he assumed Chalker worked with the authority.

While Miramar opponents not affiliated with the military or authority were given two-minute opportunities to address supervisors during the televised session, Chalker was given more time – and the added credibility of sitting with authority officials.

“They had him as part of the presentation,” Weil said. “There was a definite blending of advocacy and the campaign in our view. Without a doubt.”

Chalker said his presentation – he summarized the Marines’ tentative plans to move fighter jets away from Miramar – was no different than speaking during a public comment period.

“I don’t really see what the difference is here,” Chalker said. “It’s a public meeting.”

Lynch, a Miramar supporter, said he invited Chalker and questioned whether the criticism was a case of Miramar opponents trying to nitpick.

“What we need is a huge basket for these nits to go in that these people are picking,” Lynch said. “Can we just address the [air capacity] issue that San Diego has?”

The authority will address outreach in September, Lynch said, but he wondered what would be done differently.

Sessom said a meeting could help delineate blurred lines between education and advocacy.

“Hopefully,” she said, “we would have established reporting lines so the board would have had a heads up when a piece of literature is coming out, or when a presentation is going to be made. I think it’s critical that the board understand what is being done in our name. And that’s not happening.”

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

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