Saturday, April 7, 2007 | Alan Bersin, 60, returned late last year to San Diego from Sacramento, where he’d been serving as the state education secretary. He joined the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which was reeling from the November wallop it received from county voters, who rejected a plan to close Lindbergh Field and move the airport to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

The former San Diego school superintendent and U.S. attorney has been, at times, a polarizing figure in San Diego, though he steps into a role that is still reeling from a polarized debate. Bersin sat down with to talk about his political future, the challenges facing the airport authority, his interpretation of the Miramar defeat and what it will take to rebuild confidence in his new employer.

I’m curious if you can talk about your decision to join the airport authority. What brought you here?

Well, two things. One, since 1991, I’ve been involved in public service and along the way have taken on new subject matters. When I started as the United States attorney, I’d never prosecuted a criminal case. When I started as superintendent, I’d never been in the education field.

So when I determined that the work had been done at the state level in the governor’s cabinet (and) when the mayor talked about the difficulties of the airport authority, it struck me as a challenge and an opportunity to learn about a new area — as well as to come home to my family. And I haven’t been disappointed. This is a good (issue) — the airport itself, at a political and technical level — in the wake of the vote determining how to make Lindbergh more effective. But also figuring out how to supplement the capacity by doing something much larger in terms of regional cooperation. I mean, you can only improve capacity here — which is what the people have decided they want — by either improving the airport footprint or by making it more efficient through relationships with the 15 other airports in the county and (Tijuana) Rodriguez (International Airport) to the south. It’s a massively interesting and important problem. It’s sort of right up my alley.

What do you see as the airport authority’s political challenge, which essentially started on Nov. 8?

I think the authority lost the confidence of the people. In part, as a result of the vote. But the vote was only one very small portion of the airport authority’s work since its creation. Unfortunately, the perception of the authority is almost exclusively connected to the vote. … But that is not unusual in public life, for public agencies to be typecast on one set of events.

That’s what happened here. The job of rebuilding the credibility of the airport authority — and doing it in the context of Senator Kehoe’s SB10 (legislation that proposes to overhaul the authority’s management structure) — is a political challenge. It’s not just the airport authority, it’s the airport authority in the context of regional planning, in the context of re-establishing a relationship with the City Council.

Was the Miramar initiative the right thing for the airport authority to have pursued?

I haven’t pored over the technical studies, but I have no reason to doubt that it was a good-faith technical conclusion. That of all the alternatives, Miramar was the one that from a technical standpoint met all the requirements. I don’t think it’s a grand conclusion to say that it was a politically disastrous choice.

How do you effect the change of improving a government entity’s image?

I think the way my colleagues on the board — working in concert with the staff — have done in the three-and-a-half months that we’ve been here. We’ve avoided a sharp division on the board. In fact, all board actions have been taken unanimously. The process by which we’ve built a bond among ourselves is a good example of the way public agencies ought to operate.

Not all votes, though, have been unanimous.

No, but you don’t expect unanimity of that sort — it’s more appropriate to the graveyard than to a public agency.

City Council President Scott Peters has proposed the idea of an airport czar to oversee the future of Lindbergh Field and the politics of the airport authority. Is there a need for such a position? Would you consider taking it?

Those are two questions, and the answer to both is ‘No.’ President Peters has actually pointed to a need that has to be addressed. Understand that what we need is the combination of technical capacity, which the staff has impressed me as having, together with a policy guidance and political guidance the board can provide. When you start to have a mix of leadership and management and you blur the boundaries between the board and the staff, I think you create conditions for problems. Having said that, I think Scott is right. You need a board presence that provides policy and political guidance but doesn’t do it in a way that leaves any doubt about where the management responsibilities are. I think that within the existing framework, you can find a way to meet those — without creating something like a super-CEO who has an indefinite relationship to the CEO.

That was a no? You would not serve in that position?

I think what led Scott Peters to suggest it raises valid concerns that need to be addressed. I don’t think that’s the solution to address the concerns he’s underlined. And no, I would have no interest in being in any position that would blur board leadership and operational management.

Can you legislatively address the concern he’s raised?

You can legislatively address that by creating relationships between board leadership and management that actually don’t lead to a confusion of accountability lines. But that’s what Chris Kehoe, Mayor Sanders and Mayor (Mary) Sessom at SANDAG and all of us will be talking about.

The concern among elected officials has been clearly articulated. Is there concern that elected officials can’t provide the leadership here that’s needed because they’re not airport experts?

No. I think that Senator Kehoe’s view, which I respect, is that elected officials do provide direct accountability. But I think you can get that without running into the downsides. … It is not disrespecting staff to say that when you have a board that meets once a month you end up with a staff-driven operation. And that’s not to be preferred. … How you blend all this is the challenge you have.

One other issue that Scott Peters raised was in talking about President and CEO Thella Bowens, saying that she was an effective airport operator but not adept at the variegated political needs of managing this agency. Do you agree?

I have satisfied myself that she’s one of the premier airport operators in the country and respected as such by her peers and the FAA. I don’t jump to conclusions about whether people have a political sense or not. Do I think her primary skills are in political matters? No. She’s an airport operator of the first rank. But as a chief executive, she’s got plenty of political sense and plenty of old-fashioned common sense. … But is she the most effective political actor in San Diego County? Does she know all of the ins and outs of the politics of the county, city and region? No. She’d be the first to say she didn’t. She has a board, and the board ought to be the source of most of those judgments. Thella’s no babe in the woods.

Since you’ve come back from Sacramento, the speculation among some political observers in the city has been: Why did he really come back?

How about to be with my family?

And of course the questions keep coming up. Is he going to run for mayor? Is he going to run for city attorney? Is he going to run for City Council? Is he going to run for Congress? Do you want to clear all of that off the table? Will you run for elected office?

I have enormous regard for elected officials. The fact is, in the 15 years I’ve chosen public service, I have not run for elected office. I have not run for office for lots of reasons that are professional and personal. For example: Fundraising. I admire those people who are fundraisers. It’s not something I see myself as being able at nor particularly desirous of getting involved in — to the extent that campaign-finance laws require it of political leaders.

Would I rule it out? No. Would I say that, looking at my past, it’s a likely occurrence? I’d also say no.

Are you concerned that you won’t have a job in nine months (if Kehoe’s legislation passes)?

No. I made it very clear, the senator asked me point blank whether I was taking this job for the salary. The answer to that was no. And if I would leave absent a salary. And the answer to that was no. This is about structuring an airport authority that makes sense from a good government standpoint — and serves very real needs here. We have an airport that is very effective. But at some point, there’s no question that it hits capacity. So how do we make adjustments by improving this airport and using other airports?

I was reading some coverage of your career today. One story called you a “polarizing change agent.” And yet you’re stepping into a role that is about eliminating polarity.

If you go back to when I first started in this town as a public servant, as U.S. attorney … what people will tell you is that what our team did, we actually brought together a huge schism between local and federal law enforcement. What happened during that period of five or six years was creating real bonds and working relationships.

When I was asked to become school superintendent, it was on a 3-2 board vote. … I understood that a 3-2 vote — a split board — was not the foundation on which you could build very much of a reform program. But I also thought that because there were five Democrats that I could actually heal that division, as I had in the past. That turned out to be a massive miscalculation, because the dividing line turned out to be a labor management chasm that could not be filled. …

Being a polarizing change agent would not serve very well in this context (at the airport.) It’s very contextual. Leadership depends on being able to diagnose where you are, and what’s needed, and making judgments that are consistent with where you find yourself. This is completely different from the school board situation. And the school board situation was far different from the border enforcement issues.

Talking about the future of this airport. Can you describe Lindbergh Field in 2030?

I think it’s an airport that by all projections has hit the limitations of a single runway. But by 2030, it’s an airport that has incorporated 80 acres that are now empty, which we settled with [a recent] lawsuit. There is a certain capacity boost. You can certainly build an airport that’s much better integrated into ground transportation. … The difficult question is what does this look like in 2040, when the projections suggest that you have definitely maxed out what you can do with a single-runway airport. I think that’s a question, that after we get the 2015 and 2030 items hammered out and revised by the community, we have to start talking very seriously with the community about what 2040 looks like. But they want to make sure we’re set for 2030, and that’s a fair request. There’s a lot of work to be done to get ready for that. The intellectual and political question about what do we do in 2040 is one that people are going to have to start thinking about.

Is there ever again going to be an appetite for an off-site airport solution?

Not without significant change in the climate and in the view of opinion leaders and community members. I think that’s in some ways what was unfortunate about the (Miramar) vote in November. It may have forced an issue before its time. … The vote has gotten everybody back focused on improving Lindbergh. I’m coming into it from the perspective that people have made a decision that another site is off, that we should focus on the task at hand, which is getting Lindbergh built right and Lindbergh coordinated correctly. And that’s a very doable job. Not easy, but doable.

— Interview by ROB DAVIS

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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