Friday, March 16, 2007 | San Diego City Council President Scott Peters is asking state Sen. Christine Kehoe to create an “airport czar” job to oversee the airport authority, as part of the senator’s proposed legislative overhaul.

The airport czar, as envisioned by Peters, would be responsible for planning the future of Lindbergh Field and would be senior to current airport President and CEO Thella Bowens, who oversaw the failed Miramar ballot initiative. The authority’s board would appoint the airport czar, Peters said, adding that the job would be “paid a lot.”

A New Czar?

  • The Issue: City Council President Scott Peters is proposing an “airport czar” to oversee the future planning of Lindbergh Field.
  • What It Means: The position would diminish the role of current authority President and CEO Thella Bowens. She oversaw the failed Miramar ballot initiative.
  • The Bigger Picture: The proposal comes as state Sen. Christine Kehoe looks to revamp the authority. While it’s not known how other council members or the mayor feel about the airport czar, the city’s endorsement of the overhaul is considered vital for it to pass.

Kehoe, D-San Diego, has introduced legislation that would overhaul the authority by requiring board members to be elected officials, cutting the $171,648 annual salaries paid to three executive committee members and trimming the number of board members from nine to seven. It would strip the authority of its land-use planning abilities at the county’s regional airports.

Peters and other office-holders in the region say they are concerned that an airport board composed of elected officials won’t have the know-how or time to plan for Lindbergh Field’s future. Doing so must be a priority after the Miramar defeat, Peters said.

“It’s the hardest thing a region can do — rearranging Lindbergh. It’s a huge, huge thing,” Peters said. “This is not like building a house.”

The airport authority already has a lead executive in Bowens, who is appointed by the authority’s board. It is unclear how the airport czar would be Bowens’ superior. Bowens’ performance is overseen by the board, which holds the power to fire her. If the czar position is created, it would clearly diminish Bowens’ role. Peters was critical of Bowens’ political acumen and said her focus should be solely on airport operations.

“It strikes me that she’s good at knowing how to operate the airport,” Peters said. “You need someone who understands the politics and policy of planning for the future.”

Bowens has acknowledged in public forums that the authority made significant mistakes during its $17.2-million site-selection process, which culminated with voters overwhelmingly rejecting a commercial airport at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

“We remained too narrowly focused on our goal, despite (a) lack of political, military and business support,” Bowens said in a recent speech to the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp, according to a copy of her talking points. “(We) should have been willing to re-examine the path we were taking in light of such lack of support.”

Bowens declined to comment through a spokesman, who said she was unaware of the czar proposal’s details.

Peters first presented his idea to Kehoe and Assemblyman George Plescia, R-La Jolla, in February at the annual retreat of the San Diego Association of Governments, a regional planning board.

“The concern that some of the council members and the mayor have raised is the time commitment, and if its going to be elected officials, should there be somebody who can devote more time?” said Deanna Spehn, a Kehoe spokeswoman. “Have we had any long discussions since then? No. Is the senator considering other options? Yes.”

Kehoe has repeatedly said she is willing to amend her bill, though Spehn said any amendments are at least a month away. Any changes will be aired publicly “well in advance” of the bill’s next hearing — still unscheduled — before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Spehn said.

Peters said he wouldn’t endorse the legislative overhaul unless the airport czar position is added. Peters, who will be termed out and leave the council in 2008, said he would not take the job. “It’s not for me,” he said.

It is not known how other council members feel about the proposal. The city’s endorsement of Kehoe’s bill is considered vital. Other state legislators would be less likely to support her overhaul without having the city’s stamp of approval.

Mayor Jerry Sanders, who attended the February retreat where Peters pitched his idea, doesn’t recall the discussion, spokesman Fred Sainz said.

Peters said the airport czar would have to have “a good political, business and financial background.” He didn’t rule out the possibility of the position being filled by authority Chairman Alan Bersin, who would be out of a job if Kehoe’s overhaul is approved. Bersin is familiar with the czar title. As a U.S. attorney, he was called the “border czar.”

“I don’t know who it would be,” Peters said. “[Bersin] could do it. You want someone of that caliber.”

Peters said he is basing the idea on SANDAG’s current structure. That regional agency is composed of elected officials from each of the region’s governments. It is overseen by Gary Gallegos, the executive director.

But the airport authority already has a chief bureaucrat: Bowens. And it already has an executive in charge of Lindbergh’s future land-use: Angela Shafer-Payne, the authority’s vice president of strategic planning.

Peters said he was unaware whether any of the nation’s other airports had a structure similar to what he proposes.

Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, said the airport czar idea is “idiotic,” given its lack of precedent.

“What’s the purpose?” he asked. “This is obviously a way to enhance city authority over another regional agency.”

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