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Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006 | In early January 2003, members of the airport authority’s executive committee showed up for their first day of work at the newly created government agency.
The transition of the airport’s power from the Unified Port of San Diego to the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority had been in the works for two years. During that time, new offices for the authority board’s high-ranking members had been carved out on the third floor of Lindbergh Field’s commuter terminal. About $6.5 million was spent in the transition process, including about $3.1 million on improvements to the authority’s facilities.
But when the authority board’s executive board members came to work on Jan. 2 – to a job that then paid $139,500 annually – not all of the details were ironed out.
They had new desks. But they didn’t have chairs.
The not-so-seamless transition was an inauspicious start for a fledgling organization given a major charge: Answer San Diego’s long-standing airport question. It is also symbolic of the political miscues that befell the airport authority during the next three years.
As the authority moved through a three-and-a-half year site selection process – designed to answer projections that Lindbergh Field would hit capacity between 2015 and 2022 – the authority endured several costly blunders. Its boosters say they were given a politically impossible task. Its critics say politically naive decisions ultimately doomed the process to failure, eroding the authority’s credibility along the way.
Scott Barnett, president of TaxpayersAdvocate.org, which endorsed the Miramar measure, says this: “The blunders were one more nail in the coffin. But the grave was dug before the authority was created. All the blunders did was add to it and make it worse. The history is just against building an international airport anywhere within an existing urban area – in San Diego or the United States.”
In the end, the authority’s attempt at definitively answering San Diego’s airport question was overwhelmingly defeated. By a 62 percent to 37 percent margin, San Diego County voters said no to a new international airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. The airport authority took on the Marine Corps and lost. Badly.
The airport authority never gained the full support of local politicians or the business community – the very groups it was counting on. Critics said the search’s outcome was predestined, calling it “the march to Miramar.”
An examination of what went wrong starts midway through the site-selection process.
Early 2005: Base Closure Stand Down
It was February 2005. In Washington, D.C., the Pentagon was beginning a controversial streamlining process, examining which bases it could close across the country.
In San Diego, the two-year-old airport authority was in the midst of its site-selection process. The authority was searching for a site to put on the November 2006 ballot, hoping to answer projections that Lindbergh Field was running out of capacity. And it was drawing close to studying military sites – at the same time local business leaders and political leaders were trying to keep San Diego’s bases from being closed.
The timing freaked out the region’s politicians, who weren’t excited about the idea of being held responsible for a politically costly base closure.
Then-San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy told the authority to keep quiet. So did U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, along with five congressmen and 12 state legislators.
At the same time they caught flak from Congress – particularly from then-U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham – the authority’s leaders traveled to a Hawaii conference. There, they met with republican Congressmen John Mica and Ernest Istook, who have both served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The authority delivered a clear message: Get Cunningham to back off, because the authority needs Miramar, said Mary Teresa Sessom, an airport authority board member and Miramar airport opponent, who sat in on the meetings.
“Our jaws hit the floor,” said Xema Jacobson, an authority board member and Miramar opponent also in the meetings. “That’s when Mary and I realized the march to Miramar was coming.”
Craver, who also attended the meetings, said authority officials did meet with Mica to get him to get Cunningham to back off – but only specifically related to a legislative block that the disgraced former congressman had put on airport funding to study military bases.
In the end, the authority backed off from studying military sites during the base closure process.
But the very officials that asked for a political favor from the authority in 2005 didn’t return the favor in 2006, as the authority looked for political allies for its ballot measure. Was the decision to stand down a mistake?
“It’s hard to accuse a child of having made a mistake,” said William D. Lynch, an airport authority board member and Miramar airport supporter. “At the time where we were being asked (to stand down), we were a new agency that had not drilled down on the non-military sites. How could we say ‘We think we need to go after these bases?’”
Ignoring the politicians’ demands in 2005 may have prompted legislators to disband the authority on the spot, Lynch said.
Regardless, the authority’s bureaucratic life is again on the line, as state legislators currently consider whether to disband or restructure the three-year-old agency.
February 2006: The Press Conference
The San Diego media’s ears perked up when a February trip was announced. Senior airport officials were going to Washington, D.C. They were meeting with the assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy. Could this portend a major breakthrough?
The authority hoped to alleviate speculation about what happened behind closed doors. When the officials returned, they held a press conference. A pack of reporters and television cameras greeted the authority officials home.
The lights flipped on, and authority Chairman Joe Craver stepped to the podium. He read a statement. He mentioned the word “cooperation.” Reporters seized on it. Was the Navy going to listen to proposals to use a base as a civilian airport? Would they cooperate with plans to share airspace?
“To me, cooperation means they will work with us,” Craver responded.
The next day’s headline in The San Diego Union-Tribune: “Navy: ‘We will cooperate’ on new airport site.”
But that’s not what B.J. Penn, the assistant secretary of the Navy, had said. Penn called Craver the next morning. He was not happy. Penn had said they would cooperate by sharing information – not airspace. By mid-afternoon, the airport authority had issued what it called “follow-on information.” A retraction.
At the Washington meeting, the authority’s consultants had presented a plan to build a runway at Camp Pendleton, allowing Miramar’s operations to shift north – clearing room at Miramar for a commercial airport. The Navy rejected the idea, and some suggest the authority took the wrong approach.
“Lynch and Craver weren’t the people to go in to negotiate,” said Jacobson, who attended the meeting. “They didn’t want to go in and negotiate. They wanted Miramar. It was a clear goal. When they were told no, there was no Plan B. And the press conference just amplified the mistrust the military had with those two.”
Craver downplayed the long-term implications of the meeting, his statement and its retraction. He said the media misinterpreted his words.
“Was that unfortunate? In hindsight, I would say yes,” Craver said Wednesday. “I would like that to have not have happened.”
June 2006: From Definitive to Advisory
When the airport authority was created in 2003, it was given a serious task: Find a site to resolve long-standing questions about Lindbergh Field’s long-term viability. The authority’s site-selection process was supposed to be the definitive study. The be-all, end-all.
It was not intended to be advisory.
In a November 2003 editorial, Craver described the definitive study’s process. The initial 32 sites the authority identified would get rigorous evaluation, he wrote. The sites most worth of consideration, he wrote, “will undergo full environmental evaluation as required by the California Environmental Quality Act and National Environmental Policy Act, funded by state and federal grant monies.”
But the federal and state environment reviews never happened.
And that was the difference between a binding vote – which could have resolved the region’s airport question – and the advisory vote that occurred. The advisory vote essentially simply offered officials direction from voters, rather than spurring any official action.
Environmental reviews would have required the authority to consider alternatives to each chosen site. They would have required the authority to formally spell out environmental impacts of building a new airport at each site. At Miramar, that would have meant detailing the environmental costs of building atop one of San Diego County’s last major stretches of vernal pools, a wetlands habitat home to several endangered and threatened species.
Craver said the reviews weren’t done because the site-selection process ran out of time.
“I would have loved to have had the time to do the environmental reports,” he said. “But the time was not there to do it. That was very, very disappointing.”
June-July 2006: The Ballot Language
It wasn’t obvious at first.
But after the airport authority approved its ballot question June 5, a rift opened in the business community – long expected to be an ardent supporter of a new airport plan. Instead, their support was tepid. Politicians quickly distanced themselves from the idea. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said he would remain neutral. A key committee of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce had voted to oppose the Miramar proposal.
The full chamber vote drew near – a vital endorsement – and it was not a lock to support the airport measure.
As that mid-July vote approached, several San Diego business leaders – led by real estate magnate Malin Burnham – crafted a new ballot question and floated it to see whether local politicians would bite. Some airport authority board members were poised to introduce the new language. But after the behind-the-scenes move was reported by voiceofsandiego.org, the authority jettisoned the plan and publicly distanced themselves from it.
Craver said the ballot language was “not helpful to us.”
“This whole Miramar site selection was not an easy process,” he said. “It was a complicated process and certainly very difficult to explain to the electorate. We did our best, and we were not successful.”