|On to Phase II in Airport Talks
By Ann K. Williams
October 6, 2011-- The future of Santa Monica Airport will be the topic of more discussion and, now, the focal point of a regional partnership between Santa Monica and the City of Los Angeles.
After hearing from over 40 people, reading more than 100 emails and fielding numerous phone calls from residents who expressed passionate opinions about Santa Monica Airport and what will happen to it when the city's agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expires in 2015, the City Council voted to move the debate forward to “Phase II,” – a series of focus groups to talk about the future of the airport and surrounding lands in more depth.
“People are dying to tell us what's most important to them,” said City Manager Rod Gould. “To some it's the jets, to some it's the propeller planes and lead [based fuel], to some it's safety issues of when the next plane's going to crash.”
An appeal from Los Angeles Councilmember Bill Rosendahl raised the possibility that Santa Monica can form a partnership with the City of Los Angeles. They can then use their combined clout to push the region's members of congress to pressure the FAA as the cities negotiate with the powerful Administration.
Rosendahl repeated his position that he wants the airport closed – a viewpoint echoed by a number of residents – because it poses a safety hazard to people who live underneath the flight paths of SMO aircraft and because of the air pollution they generate.
Councilmember Bobby Shriver, who invited Rosendahl to the council meeting, added an amendment to Tuesday night's motion directing staff to include staff from the City of Los Angeles in the the city's planning process.
But as far as the Phase II focus groups were concerned, Shriver wasn't convinced more discussions were a good use of the city's time and money.
“People are going 'why are we doing this, you guys know what we think, why haven't we done it already?'” said Shriver.
The point isn't whether or not the city should act, countered Mayor Pro Tem Gleam Davis. She said the input from the focus groups is vital evidence the city will need when tries to negotiate with the FAA, which has broad regulatory authority over the airport and its operations.
But the subject of the airport's closure was never far from the debate.
Although City Attorney Marsha Moutrie enumerated a host of legal impediments standing in the way of forcing the FAA to close the airport by suing it, she made it clear that litigation was still on the table.
“The city is not afraid to litigate,” Moutrie countered when Shriver seemed to imply that the city was reluctant to act.
“I think we're all getting giddy,” said Mayor Richard Bloom.
Like most of her colleagues on the dais, Davis wanted to explore the possibilities inherent in negotiation and compromise.
She cautioned against “the idea that we should go in guns blazing and we should say 'FAA, we hate you we're suing you.”
“Litigation does not lead to thoughtfulness,” Davis said.
Bloom warned that reckless litigation could well lead to city into an impossible position when the agreement with the FAA expires, if the city loses.
“This is a huge issue,” he said. A failed lawsuit “could have very very significant consequences for the community.”
But Shriver wanted to keep the possibility alive, at least in theory.
He added another condition to the motion, directing staff to study the prospect of a declaratory relief action – that is, a legal proceeding in which a judge rules on the city's chances if it does sue the FAA.
Phase II – a series of focus groups of eight to twelve individuals – will begin in December after an open house at the airport. A website publicizing the groups will be online by then. Anyone interested – including residents of the Los Angeles neighborhoods surrounding the airport – will be allowed to sign up.
For now, the city will continue to talk with the FAA about what can be done to control the airport's flight schools, and it will begin organizing regional discussions.
The Council voted unanimously in favor of proceeding to Phase II, with Shriver's amendments. Councilmembers Pam O'Connor and Terry O'Day were absent.
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