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Randomly Chosen Airport Panel Gets Major Pushback

By Jorge Casuso

October 9, 2023 -- A City staff proposal to have a randomly chosen panel guide the future of Santa Monica Airport has been met with stiff opposition from activists who paved the way for transforming the 227-acre site.

Staff's proposal -- which the Council will discuss on Tuesday -- was immediately attacked by the two neighborhood groups most directly impacted by the airport, as well as the largest airport activist group.

Northeast Neighbors, Friends of Sunset Park and No Jets urged the Council not to adopt a lottery system -- which is not common in North America -- or hire the non-profit Healthy Democracy to help determine the fate of the land after the airport's scheduled closure on December 31, 2028.

Staff has said the proposal will result in a panel composed of "everyday people" who "do not have prior experience with the policy topic" ("Randomly Chosen Panel Should Guide Airport's Future, Officials Say," September 25, 2023).

In a letter to the Council Thursday, Northeast Neighbors called the lottery "the worst process imaginable" to address an issue that will impact some areas far more than others.

"Randomly selected city residents without any technical background in the financial issues at play will likely be ill-prepared to know what questions to ask," the group wrote.

This would make the panel vulnerable to "significant bias based on what information they are provided with and what information is accidentally (or otherwise) omitted."

The following day, Friends of Sunset Park, which represents the neighborhood abutting the airport, echoed the concerns in a letter to the Council.

"Staff should not be allowed to introduce 'co-governance' to Santa Monica, and the Council should certainly not approve such a radical departure from our rules of governance without clear, unambiguous, voter consent," Friends of Sunset Park wrote.

“'Democratic lotteries' are not democratic elections, and 'random' does not mean 'unbiased. Lottery-selected panels can be led astray with incomplete, biased, or deceptive information inputs."

Meanwhile, No Jets began circulating a petition opposing a “Lottery-selected panel process” and the proposal to hire Healthy Democracy, which has been linked to pro-housing activists.

The group noted that in 2014, Santa Monica voters approved Measure LC, which allows the Council to approve "the development of parks, public open spaces, and public recreational facilities" but prohibits new development on the airport land without voter approval.

The petition -- circulated by Supporters of Measure LC and residents in Santa Monica and Los Angeles who live near the airport -- questions the way staff, in its report to the Council, framed a key question the panel will address.

“How should the diverse needs of our community inform the future of the Airport land and the balances of land use and development that will most effectively contribute to Santa Monica’s long-term vitality?”

According to the petition, "That framing question points the proposed panel’s deliberations toward development.

"Any framing question should include the constraints of LC, distinguishing between what can be done under the LC City Charter Amendment, and what would need further voter approval."

The three groups also oppose staff's proposal to hire Healthy Democracy, a group Northeast Neighbors linked to former Housing Commissioner Leonora Camner, executive director of Abundant Housing LA, which "engineered an increase in the housing allocation for Santa Monica."

"Healthy Democracy claims to be a nonpartisan nonprofit organization," Northeast Neighbors wrote in its letter to the Council, proving links that connect the group to Camner. "That is not the case.

"Healthy Democracy is aligned with a developer lobby that would favor an outcome at the airport in direct conflict with the expressed preferences of almost all residents of the city for an ultra-low-density open space."

The item on Tuesday's agenda comes some eight months after the Council indicated staff should consider expanding its outreach efforts to include not only local residents but those in the region who will use the park ("Airport Plan Takes Off," January 25, 2023).

The City must "expand the model of who participates" and come up with "bold and innovative ways" to gather input during the first phase of the process, said Councilmember Jesse Zwick.

This should include innovative outreach efforts that engage residents across a broad "geographic, demographic and economic" spectrum, Zwick said.

Staff said a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) would be issued in early 2023 "that solicits interest from qualified firms or multi-disciplinary teams to assist the City in developing a public-facing process."

A subsequent Request for Proposal (RFP) would "involve input from the community so that residents and other stakeholders have the opportunity to articulate their interests in how the planning process is shaped from inception," officials said.

The decision to propose a lottery, as well as hiring Healthy Democracy, was first made public in an information item from top Public Works officials sent to the City Council on September 25.

The proposed process, staff said, "would result in a panel that demands broad demographic representation, and minimizes the influence of special interests" in determining the future of the site.

The proposal came after one City official said deciding the land's future was "the most transformative urban planning event of the century" for Santa Monica.

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