Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2006| The cast of characters was the same as almost every airport authority meeting: Same uniformed military officials, same airport officials, the same handful of reporters, the same gadflies.

But Tuesday at a state senate hearing at the Balboa Park Club, there was one difference. The airport authority’s board members were sitting in the audience.

A subtle difference, perhaps, but a telling one. Because with less than a month to Election Day, the focus was on the authority – not on its Miramar ballot initiative. With local legislators considering changing the authority’s governing structure, the authority’s board is no longer simply hoping for voters to approve the Miramar plan.

The authority is fighting for its own survival.

State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, and Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, convened the hearing to gather input about whether the airport authority is working. The local delegation expects to introduce legislation early next year that could revamp the airport authority. They say the three-year-old organization needs more accountability.

“I don’t think the airport authority is doing everything wrong,” Kehoe said. “But there’s room for improvement.”

The hearings expose a two-year-old rift between the authority and local legislators. In 2004, the Pentagon was considering which of its bases to close and the authority was preparing to study military bases as potential homes for a new airport. Hoping to avoid making a local base an easy target, legislators blasted the authority for even considering military facilities.

The rift widened this June, when the authority made its controversial decision to choose Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the best site for a new international airport. The decision could ultimately cost the authority its bureaucratic existence.

“We don’t think this authority has been very receptive to any input or questions from the state Legislature,” Plescia said. “They’re out of touch with the public.”

While the airport authority pitched its case to legislators Tuesday, its leaders hardly mentioned their ballot initiative. They presented for 45 minutes before uttering the word “Miramar.”

Instead, they sang their own praises: “This airport authority and this board are really working very well,” authority board member Paul Peterson said. “I know it sounds self-serving, but this board is as good as I’ve ever seen.”

They noted their accomplishments: A three-page handout detailed three years’ of honors. An award for a storm water management plan. An achievement award for environmental protection. A waste recycling award.

And they gave reporters a folder full of information, detailing their public outreach, their media coverage, their briefings with federal officials, local leaders and community groups.

But they were often forced to fend off criticisms about the Miramar decision and their public outreach, including a mailer sent out to 766,000 county voters last week. Opponents cried foul, saying the mailer was clearly designed to sway voter opinion. Public agencies are forbidden from advocating for ballot measures.

The Miramar decision, accompanied by a nuanced ballot question and vacillating rhetoric about what the authority wants from the Marines, has given traction to airport opponents’ criticisms. In June, the authority pointed to Miramar’s joint use as the best option to culminate a three-year search for an answer to projections that Lindbergh Field will reach capacity sometime between 2015 and 2022.

But in the weeks after the Miramar joint-use idea was deemed feasible, the once-solid concept simply evaporated. Maps, sound contours and a price tag disappeared. Instead, authority officials said a ‘yes’ vote gave them the opportunity to have a dialogue with the military. The military says that dialogue has already occurred.

While that has given ammunition to the authority’s detractors, a report commissioned by Kehoe has done the same for authority supporters.

Legislators characterize the authority as being out of touch. The authority says it is independent, not out of touch.

And Kehoe’s report, produced by the California Research Bureau, says autonomy – no matter how you characterize it – is a good thing. Several speakers cited this passage:

“The research literature suggests that autonomous airport governing bodies such as regional authorities are more effective for airports that play a significant role in regional and national economies. This is because they tend to insulate airports from political interference, and are more adept at long-term planning than more politicized local governance structures.”

But Assemblyman Jay La Suer, R-La Mesa, dressed down the authority’s speakers, rejecting the idea that people want an independent board. Earlier this year, La Suer introduced legislation that would have reduced the number of authority members and have required them to stand for election.

“A whole lot of people are not happy with you,” La Suer told the board members. “They don’t want an independent board. They want accountability.”

Nineteen people spoke during a public comment session. Eight supported changes, ten favored keeping the existing structure.

Lance Murphy, an outspoken critic of the airport’s noise curfew violations, said the authority should be left alone. He criticized Kehoe for scheduling the hearing before the November election.

Both Kehoe and Plescia oppose the Miramar plan. In an interview, Kehoe said the hearing was not an attempt to sway voter opinion. She said a hearing had to be scheduled before the vote, because there wasn’t enough time between Election Day and the beginning of the state Senate’s next session in early December.

Kehoe remained noncommittal about what changes she may propose, saying she is still open to suggestions. She has suggested transferring some authority duties to the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning group whose board is composed of local mayors and city council members.

After the Tuesday hearing concluded, Kehoe said she is not yet convinced that SANDAG is the right answer. She said the board may simply need to be reconfigured, perhaps with a single tier and more elected officials. Currently, three executive committee members work full time; the six other authority members are paid stipends for attending meetings.

The next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17. Tentative speakers include Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor; a SANDAG official; and a representative from the San Diego County Taxpayers Assoc.

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

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