Saturday, Nov. 11, 2006 | Mary Teresa Sessom, 54, is in her final days as a board member on the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. She has been an outspoken critic of its site-selection process, dubbing it “the march to Miramar.” Sessom, who has served as Lemon Grove’s mayor since 1996, has represented East County mayors on the authority board. As she steps down in December, Sessom turns her attention to the San Diego Association of Governments, where she will serve as chairwoman in 2007.

When she’s not handling public policy, Sessom teaches full-time. She is the coordinator of the business and professional studies department at Cuyamaca College. She sat down with voiceofsandiego.org to talk about the failed Miramar measure, her appraisal of it and just who drank what she calls “the Miramar Kool-Aid.”

You teach. So give a grade to the airport authority for the last three-and-a-half years.

D. They do some things well. But overall their performance has been abysmal.

Why not an A, why not an F?

Not an F. Because that means they didn’t succeed at the minimum requirements to pass the class. An A means you greatly exceeded expectations. They weren’t even a C, which is an average grade. In terms of running the airport – the operations – I’d give them an A. But in terms of site selection and the airport master plan … I would give them an F. So that A averages with the F, which really brings you to barely passing.

There’s a picture on the airport authority’s website of the board. Everybody is standing there, wearing a dark suit and they’re all standing close together. And then there’s you, wearing a gray suit and standing off to everybody’s right. Was that a conscious decision? Or is it symbolic?

You know, people have told me that it looks like we’re all pissed off at each other in that picture, that we don’t like each other. The pose itself: They told us to put our hands in our pockets. I never thought about it. It must’ve been totally unconscious, because I have not identified with that group. Even though I like them individually, as board members I don’t think we were a team.

Were you supposed to be a team, though?

In my opinion, every board needs to be a team. It doesn’t mean they need to agree, it doesn’t mean they need to like each other. It just means they need to have a common trust and understanding. There are a lot of people I disagree with on some of the boards I work on. But I basically trust everybody else I work with, and I have an understanding of where they’re coming from. I can’t say on that board (the authority) that I feel that way about other board members.

Why?

Keeping my personal feelings out of this – because I don’t want to come across as a wounded female – there’s been some times over the last three years when board members have deliberately misled me, when board members have lied to me, when board members have marginalized me. And not just me, but my input. And they’ve supported staff that has done the same thing. …

I like the issue. I like making policy. This was an exciting thing to do. I did not like the board and staff, by and large. I like them as people, I do not like them as fellow board members. And that is a strong statement. That is a very strong statement.

$17.2 million spent. Was it a waste of time and money? Or did we learn from this chapter of the airport saga?

It wasn’t a waste of money. I don’t have the technical expertise to evaluate the data that was gathered. I don’t know in my own mind that the data gathered is objective. Maybe the data is objective, and the analysis wasn’t objective. But if the data is objective, then it hasn’t been a waste of time and money. If there’s only some of that data that’s useable in the future, then it’s been a partial waste of money. … In terms of achieving what the legislature told us it wanted us to do, it basically was a waste of money. Because while we have a nice databank … we didn’t achieve what we had hoped to achieve, which is solving a transportation problem.

Was it a matter of not having enough political support?

Early in the process, one of the very first meetings or retreats we had, Councilman (Ralph) Inzunza was there. He brought up at that meeting the fact that we as a board needed to pull in consultants to help us go through the political aspects of this. That didn’t happen. We had our lobbyists in Washington and Sacramento, we had our technical consultants, we had our PR consultants, but we never really had someone who could help us navigate the political minefield. If the political aspect of this decision had been addressed early on, I think we would have had a ballot initiative that could have passed. I don’t think having anybody jump on the bandwagon on that ballot language that we chose would’ve made a bit of difference.

But at the same time, Tom Shepard was hired by the authority, and he’s a veteran of getting ballot measures approved in San Diego.

Yes, but there were no political relationships built by that authority. There were none. That’s evidenced by the fact that you had one elected official openly supporting it, who happened to be a board member. Everybody else either remained neutral or was opposed, which shows that the political work wasn’t done.

Did we try to pull people in? Sure, we had the meet-and-greets and hosted elected officials at the airport and gave them the tour, and gave them the dog-and-pony show. And we would go up – and I’m speaking in the collective we, because I was never invited – we would go up to Sacramento, to Washington, D.C., and we would spend a couple of hours going from office to office. Which is necessary. But that’s not how you build political [alliances]. And because we didn’t do it, we put something on the ballot that was doomed to fail, and no one wanted to have anything to do with us. When you lose so badly – when you lose on a two-to-one basis – you are really out of touch with what’s going on around you. I think the lack of having relationships and dialogues with elected officials put the authority that far out of touch that they put something on the ballot that really went down in flames.

What would have worked?

This is all hindsight. … It would’ve been simply empowering board members to participate in different ways with various elected officials. You can’t handpick your political board members to speak with Democrats when they’re all Republicans. … We never really got out there and touched the elected officials in a way that we could get meaningful feedback that would enable us to shape a ballot measure that could have succeeded. … I think that was because we had preconceived goals the whole way – and we could only put out there those people who had drunk the Miramar Kool-Aid.

Scott Barnett, in my story [Thursday] was talking about the political gaffes the authority had. He said they were maybe one more nail in the coffin, but the grave was already dug – because of the difficulty of getting an airport built in an urban area. Is there a solution out there that 62 percent of the population would have voted ‘Yes’ on?

Probably two years ago, Bill Lynch and I had a debate in his office. We were debating what we were supposed to be doing with the authority. Bill’s position, which has always been very clear, is that we needed a site to build a new airport. My position was that we don’t need a site to build a new airport, we need a solution to a transportation problem. My philosophy clearly lost out, because we always focused on a site for a new airport. In that respect, Scott’s right. Getting a new airport built in an urban area is probably impossible to do. Denver is probably the last one. Focusing on a solution to a transportation problem is a very different process and probably would have been successful.

You’ve obviously been an opponent of Miramar. Has that been because of the area that you’ve been representing? Is it a NIMBY issue for you?

Not at all. Lemon Grove doesn’t care, because it’s not impacted. La Mesa doesn’t care because it’s not impacted. El Cajon is not impacted. Santee would be impacted by Miramar and has been very vocal about it. But this goes to the heart of what Senator Kehoe is doing. I could have ignored all of their concerns, all of Santee’s issues, because there’s nothing anybody could’ve done to me. They couldn’t pull me off the board, they couldn’t impact me in Lemon Grove. So I didn’t need to advocate for them. And I never perceived that I was advocating for Santee. I listened to them, I dialogued with them. But my position had nothing to do with the area I represent – and everything to do with the fact that we were charged with coming up with a transportation solution for the county of San Diego – and Miramar is not an option, because it’s not available.

(Authority board member) Xema Jacobson said in a conversation with me yesterday that the Miramar vote was a vindication. The definition of vindication is to clear, as from an accusation or suspicion. How does that apply to you?

I think it’s a good word. Because when I was sitting up there on the board it was always that I was wrong, I didn’t know what I was talking about – I was some kind of person who was out there. If hadn’t been a mayor, if I hadn’t had the support of so many community leaders, they would have just totally ignored me. I always felt that I understood what the people would vote for. Forget the focus groups. Forget that stuff, because that was biased to a certain extent to get to a chosen answer. I thought I was right, and in this environment at the airport, I always thought I had this scarlet letter on my forehead that said “Dissenter.” It is nice now. I haven’t been (to the authority’s office) since the vote. But I know it’s going to be nice to go down there … (because) I was correct, I interpreted what was going on in the community around me. And I was right, and you guys were wrong. All that stuff you did to me – all the lies, all the marginalizing, everything you did to me, you were wrong and I was right.

Is that a diplomatic way of saying: I told you so?

Uh-huh, you’re right.

– Interview by ROB DAVIS

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