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Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2006| With the nomination of Bob Watkins to the airport authority executive committee Tuesday, the agency’s future became a bit clearer.
The emphasis on a bit.
Watkins, chairman of R.J. Watkins & Co., a San Diego executive search company, was named as Sheriff William Kolender’s choice to replace outgoing authority member William D. Lynch, a leading proponent of the failed Miramar ballot proposal. Pending confirmation, Watkins will be joined on the authority board by Alan Bersin, the controversial former superintendent of San Diego City Schools, who has been nominated by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
While the two bring some clarity to the future makeup of the authority – five of its members will see their terms expire Dec. 4 – their appointments come amid a turbulent time for the airport board. County voters soundly rejected the Miramar ballot proposal created through the authority’s lengthy $17.2 million site-selection process, designed to respond to projections that Lindbergh Field will hit capacity by 2022.
State Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, is poised to introduce legislation in December that could overhaul the authority. She has said she wants to revamp its nine-member governing board, which makes airport policy and land-use decisions. Kehoe could trim the number of directors and potentially strip the board of its land-use planning powers.
Watkins, 63, acknowledged the authority’s uncertain future. His position on the board would pay him $150,000 annually. But, “I don’t want to give up my day job,” he said.
Despite the uncertainty, the appointment process offers insight into the future of the San Diego airport debate. In choosing Bersin, the state’s outgoing education secretary and former U.S. attorney during Sanders’ tenure as city police chief, the mayor signals a clear step away from the authority’s status quo.
Outgoing authority Chairman Joe W. Craver had sought the reappointment. Craver has been the authority’s most public face during the three-year site-selection process. Two sources said Craver recently lunched with Ronne Froman, the city’s chief operating officer, unsuccessfully lobbying to keep his job.
Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz acknowledged the airport authority’s uncertainty, but said the mayor wants to see the authority’s board explore options at Lindbergh Field.
“There’s no doubt that the airport authority is an agency that has a questionable future in the eyes of some legislators,” Sainz said. “At the very least, they need to focus in a very concerted fashion on the expansion and maximization of Lindbergh.”
In Watkins, the board gets a proponent of the Miramar proposal. Watkins said he voted to support the failed Miramar airport plan as a member of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. But he said the Miramar debate is over “for the time being.”
“It’s pretty clear to me that the general public said we don’t like the language and we don’t want to chase the military out,” Watkins said. “You never want to close out the opportunity – it’s an opportunity that’s there – but we never fleshed out the maglev or going up to Riverside or Ontario.”
Steve Peace, the former state senator who drafted the legislation creating the authority in 2003, has criticized the authority’s current long-term plan for Lindbergh Field expansion, saying it is designed to make the airport incapable of handling the increasing passengers it otherwise could.
Watkins said he doesn’t have an opinion yet about the master plan or Peace’s criticisms. It is one of many things he will begin studying as the authority moves forward on the plan next year.
“We have to do something to be able to maximize that location” at Lindbergh, Watkins said. “We’ve got to look into the future to extend the life of Lindbergh Field as long as we can.”
The nominations of Watkins and Bersin leave one vacant slot on the three-member paid executive committee. It will be filled by an appointee named by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Board member Xema Jacobson, who was appointed by former Gov. Gray Davis, is seeking the spot, though some question whether the Republican governor will reappoint a Democrat.
Jacobson said she is unsure when to expect a decision. “It’s kind of a hurry-up-and-wait-type thing,” she said.
Few know who else may be seeking the Schwarzenegger appointment. But other names are being circulated for two other authority seats that will be vacated Dec. 4. Board member Mary Teresa Sessom, who represents four East County cities, is leaving the board, as is board member Robert Maxwell, who represents North County coastal cities.
Jim Panknin, the chairman of the authority’s advisory committee, is the only name being circulated for Sessom’s spot. Panknin would not confirm that he is the choice, but said he has told the four East County mayors he would accept the position.
Ramona Finnila, a former Carlsbad city councilwoman and former chairwoman of the San Diego Association of Governments, confirmed interest in Maxwell’s spot but said she does not know if she will be chosen.
Finnila has spent nearly 20 years serving on the McClellan-Palomar Airport’s advisory committee.
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