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New Lawsuit Seeks to Invalidate Santa Monica Airport Consent Decree  

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By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 9, 2017 -- A student pilot and a certified pilot are asking a court to invalidate a consent decree between the City and federal government to shut down Santa Monica Airport, contending the City violated the state’s open-meetings law, the California Constitution and the City Charter.

Filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the suit also seeks a court order to stop the City “from future closed session violations and declare said airport-closure settlement void ab initio as without proper compliance with the open meeting laws and lacking the authorized municipal settlement execution agreement formality.”

It was filed by Kate Scott, who lives in Santa Monica’s Sunset Park neighborhood and is a student pilot taking lessons at SMO, and James Babinski, a pilot who operates out of SMO and enrolls in instrument flying lessons there.

The consent decree to shut down the airport by the end of 2018 was announced January 28 after a closed-door session on a Saturday, the pact with the Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) capped decades of fighting between the parties over the airport’s future ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).

In their lawsuit, Scott and Babinski say the City originally posted notice of the rare Saturday session as a “retreat with a limited business,” and then, on January 25, posted a “true and correct copy” of the agenda for the January 28 meeting that included a closed-session of the Council to discuss SMO litigation.

It included the litigation with the FAA.

In a statement, the City denied the lawsuit’s allegations.

“The City takes compliance with the Brown Act -- the state’s public meeting law -- seriously,” said Joseph Lawrence, interim City attorney.

“Transparency is a core value of the City,” he said. “We believe the lawsuit does not have merit and is contradicted both by what actually happened and by the Brown Act itself.”

The council’s January 28 meeting had not generated much public attention initially –- highly unusual for a session in which the charged issue of the airport is supposed to be discussed.

The “sparsely attended 'retreat' meeting” drew only three speakers from the public, who were concerned about a low-cost charter jet service (JetSuiteX) intending to operate out of SMO.

In approving the decree (a narrow 4-to-3 council vote) behind closed doors, the suit says the City Council failed to adhere to the 1953 Brown Act, the intent of which is to ensure the actions of public officials “be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.”

The new suit contends the “absence of the public scrutiny and impropriety of the settlement is also evident in its haphazard municipal execution formality.”

“Contrary to the governing body's own charter, the city clerk acted in a mayoral executive capacity; and the city manager acted in a city clerk capacity by attesting to the city clerk's signature," the suit said.

"(U)nder its own charter, an open-session resolution would have been required to authorize the city clerk and city manager to execute in that fashion to bind the municipality to the settlement given the departure in execution formality.”

Also cited in the suit are conversations with council members in which they discuss the need for conducting such deliberations without the public involved.

“(T)he moment the City Council formally took up the agendized closed session under anticipated litigation on the January 25, 2017 agenda, the City Council appears to have discussed how to deliberately violate the Brown Act,” the lawsuit said.

Since signing the consent decree, the City has fought new litigation.

Last week, a U.S District Court of Appeals rejected an attempt to stop the deal ("Circuit Court Denies Injunction to Halt Implementation of Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal," May 5, 2017).

The injunction was sought by the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) ("Aviation Groups Challenge Santa Monica Airport Closure Deal," February 15, 2017).

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