Monday, Nov. 6, 2006 | Proposition A was supposed to be the final say, the culmination of the mother of all airport studies.

This region has lived through 50 years of airport searches, of reports and questions about Lindbergh Field and what could or should replace it. Voters were supposed to go to the polls Tuesday and definitively answer this question: Should we stay at Lindbergh Field? Or should we move the airport Somewhere Else?

During the last three years, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority was charged with answering the Somewhere Else Question. With the authority projecting that Lindbergh Field will reach its 24 million annual passenger capacity sometime between 2015 and 2022, the authority was required to answer this fundamental question: If Lindbergh won’t work, what will?

Their answer: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

One problem: The Marines don’t want to leave their training base.

Now, as this region sits a day away from Election Day, even some of the airport authority’s most ardent supporters admit they expect their ballot measure to fail. Campaign fundraising has been nearly silent. And it’s clear that regardless of the outcome, San Diego’s airport question won’t be answered when we wake up Wednesday morning.

The vote is advisory. A yes vote doesn’t guarantee the airport will ever be built. Airport supporters say voting yes encourages them to have a dialogue with the military – even though the word dialogue appears nowhere in the ballot question. Opponents say the dialogue has already occurred.

So what happened?

State Sen. Steve Peace, who created the airport authority in 2003, has said he wanted it to definitively resolve San Diego’s nagging airport question. When KPBS host Gloria Penner suggested in April that the vote would be advisory, Peace reacted sharply.

“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.”

The distinction Peace was making: This isn’t 1994. Back then, an advisory vote led by San Diego hotelier Doug Manchester was specifically labeled advisory. It asked whether the airport should go to Miramar – if the base ever became available. While it was approved, 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 disgraced former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham.

But in the months since Peace made those remarks, the advisory label has solidly been affixed to the Miramar question. Peace did not return a call for comment.

Those who chose Miramar in 2006 say the Marine base was the only logical site.

“There was nothing else we could do,” said William D. Lynch, an airport authority board member and vocal Miramar airport supporter. “We were given an impossible task. The politicians won’t stand up. I wasn’t going to put a ballot measure up that would put this community up against something that wouldn’t work. That ballot measure is as close as we could get to a solution.”

The vote is advisory, Lynch said, and would be advisory regardless of what site the authority chose.

“It’s a long and tedious process,” Lynch said. “It doesn’t just happen with a vote.”

If the authority had chosen an unoccupied site, would the story be the same? Would the vote still be advisory?

Lynch says yes. The authority could not legally write ballot language saying it would obtain a specific site, Lynch said, because of state environmental laws. Those regulations establish the framework by which government agencies do business. Any final decision on a site will need an environmental review. And that hasn’t been done yet.

Critics say Miramar supporters began calling the ballot measure “advisory” only when they realized it was a long shot. The label was not commonly used until the early spring.

The advisory vote label “was, in my opinion, snuck in at the last minute,” said Mary Teresa Sessom, an airport authority board member who opposes the Miramar ballot measure. “It was a backtrack thing.”

“They were attempting to make the path get to the destination, and they couldn’t make it work,” Sessom said. “They always wanted Miramar, they thought they could get it.”

But Cunningham forced the authority to back down during the Pentagon’s recent round of base closures, she said.

“And then the military backed them down,” she said. “And they realized it wasn’t going to work. So, suddenly, this isn’t the be-all end-all.”

But it may be the curtain call for the authority as we now know it. State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, is considering legislation to revamp or reorganize the authority.

If the airport authority retains planning power over Lindbergh Field, the region won’t see another study, said John Chalker, a leader of the Coalition to Preserve the Economy, a pro-Miramar political action committee.

But if another agency such as the San Diego Association of Governments gets planning power, Chalker said another airport study could likely occur soon after power switches hands.

“That would not surprise me,” he said. “I think that’s unnecessary, but I think that’s what would occur.”

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

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