SMO – The pro-airport group that filed 15,700 petition signatures last week supporting a ballot initiative to pull the future of Santa Monica Airport from City Council’s hands say a lawsuit brought against them is frivolous.
The group has filed an anti-SLAPP (or strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion in response to a lawsuit brought by 11 Santa Monica residents.
The original lawsuit claims the initiative is deceptive and that City Hall should never have allowed it to move forward in the first place. They claim, among other things, that the initiative unfairly conflates the airport issue with development issues. They also claim that signature-gatherers gave bad information in order to entice signers. In May, attorney Jonathan Stein filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
On Friday attorneys for the other side, representing the initiative’s filers, asked the court to toss the lawsuit. They say it would waste taxpayer dollars for City Hall to defend and it burdens the three residents who filed the original suit with the loss of time and cost of legal defense.
California law allows residents to file anti-SLAPP motions to recoup the lost costs.
“This SLAPP lawsuit is part of a pattern by the same political insiders who are desperate to keep voters from having a say on what happens to 227 acres of airport land,” said David Shaby, a board member of Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions, the committee sponsoring the initiative. “They harassed and intimidated people during the signature process; they sued individual citizens and accused them of criminal acts; they even sued the City. They will try anything, but they will not be able to keep the voters from speaking out.”
Shaby is not a resident of Santa Monica.
Stein said that a SLAPP motion is meant to protect activists from special interest groups that might file a lawsuit against them to chill their First Amendment rights.
“In this case, the national pilots organization, AOPA, headquartered outside of Washington DC, has financed a signature campaign and now this lawsuit defense – the treasurer of the campaign is the partner of the lawyer representing defendants,” Stein said in an e-mail. “They are a special interest suing volunteer activists, but using the SLAPP format. It is a perverse use of traditional judicial remedies.”
Stein claims, however, that City Hall filed “nearly identical” paperwork.
“By this measure they appear to be working hand in glove,” he said. “This is odd, given that the lawsuit plaintiffs filed was to uphold the City Council actions … We are surprised that the City Attorney’s Office, instead of remaining neutral as is typical for this type of ballot lawsuit, would take sides with a national pilots organization against the local activist community.”
John Jerabek, noted as fourth-generation Santa Monican in the pro-airport group release, claimed that the suit would cost the residents.
“Suing the City just adds to a long and costly history of lawsuits that needs to stop,” he said. “The City has wasted millions on lawsuits, and Stein and the SLAPP litigants are just hitting taxpayers with more legal bills.”
Three residents filed paperwork for the pro-airport ballot initiative just days after council voted to start chipping away at SMO earlier this year. The national aviation advocacy group, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, heavily backed the petition process. The group his contributed $56,000 to the cause, much of which has gone toward paid signature gatherers. The City Clerk’s Office and representatives from Los Angeles County are currently reviewing the signatures. If they count valid signatures from 15 percent of registered Santa Monica voters, the initiative will be put to voters later this year. If voters were to approve the initiative, a public vote would be required for any major changes to the airport.