Friday, March 2, 2007 | The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority voted Thursday to oppose legislation proposed by state Sen. Christine Kehoe that would revamp its governing board.

Kehoe, D-San Diego, has introduced a bill that would require board members to be elected officials, while cutting the $171,648 annual salaries paid to three executive committee members. It would strip the authority of its land-use planning abilities.

The airport authority’s position on the legislation — the most anticipated portion of Thursday’s meeting — stands as testament to how seriously wounded the agency was by its $17.2-million site-selection process, which culminated in the failed Miramar ballot proposition. A year ago, the authority was preparing itself to spend an estimated $7 billion on a new airport. On Thursday, it was deciding whether to oppose legislation that would eviscerate its governing board.

The board agreed to oppose the legislation by a 6-0 vote. Board member James Panknin abstained, saying the board should remain neutral. Two board members were absent from the meeting.

If the legislation is approved, seven sitting members of the authority would be kicked off the board effective Jan. 1. Only the board’s two elected officials, San Marcos Mayor Jim Desmond and San Diego City Councilman Tony Young, would be eligible to remain. But as the authority’s members discussed their position on the legislation Thursday, they largely avoided mentioning that obvious implication — their own self-interest in opposing the legislation.

Instead, authority members said they were concerned the legislation would pass off responsibility for land-use planning near the county’s airports to the San Diego Association of Governments — without providing any way to fund the revision of plans every five years.

Board member Bob Watkins noted that the authority had spent more than $3 million on the most recent revision, a massive, overdue overhaul of permissible land uses around the county’s airports.

The reason it was overdue, board member Paul Nieto suggested, was because it had been SANDAG’s responsibility before the authority was formed in 2003.

“Because it wasn’t well-funded before,” Nieto said, “it wasn’t well-managed.”

Authority members were careful to caution the audience — specifically the reporters present — that they were not opposed to all of Kehoe’s proposed changes. Their formal position was “oppose unless amended.”

The resolution they adopted, however, leaves open just what needs to be amended.

Chairman Alan Bersin said other changes should be made in the legislation. He was the only authority member to acknowledge the proposed reduction in board members from nine to seven.

“This doesn’t indicate any departure from our willingness to work with the senator,” Bersin said. “But this bill, as written, doesn’t work.”

Different board members had different concerns. Board member Ramona Finnila questioned the efficacy of a proposed independent taxpayers oversight committee, given that the authority relies on fees — not taxes — charged to passengers and tenants.

Nieto said the disparity in salaries needed to be addressed. Three executive committee members — Bersin, Watkins and Charlene Zettel — are paid $171,648 annual salaries. Nieto receives a $100 stipend for each meeting he attends, with a $400 maximum monthly.

Kehoe has asked to address the board; a special meeting is expected to be scheduled for March 23. Her spokeswoman said the senator has acknowledged that amendments will be needed throughout the bill’s drafting. It has cleared the state Senate’s local government committee, which struck a provision allowing Mexico and other agencies to send representatives to sit as ex-officio board members.

The legislation, if approved, would eliminate many of the airport authority’s oddities. Authority board members are appointed by Sheriff William Kolender and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sheriffs around the state have little to do with air operations or airport security and do not appoint officials to similar bodies across California. Nor does the governor typically make appointments to local governmental bodies.

While trimming the board’s size to seven members, the proposal would allow the board the option of appointing an eighth member to serve as chairman. That position would be paid an additional $500 monthly stipend. Other members would receive $150 for each meeting they attend, with a $900 monthly maximum.

The current executive committee members, while paid, have no legislative powers different than other board members.

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