From the mid 1920s when the city of Santa Monica held a special municipal election on park bonds to acquire much of the existing Santa Monica Airport property (SMO), decisions regarding SMO were made and continue to be made by City Hall.
After World War II and with the rapid rise of general aviation, the Airport Commission was established in 1946. The five members of the commission must be qualified electors of Santa Monica and may not hold paid office or employment in city government. The Airport Commission shall have power and be required to: (a) Act in an advisory capacity to the City Council in all matters pertaining to the municipal airport and to aviation matters generally to the extent that they affect the city; and (b) Consider and recommend City Council rules and regulations for the management and operation of the municipal airport.
I first attended an Airport Commission meeting in the mid 1990s when I became aware of the strong odor of the jet fumes wafting into my Los Angeles neighborhood of North Westdale just east of SMO. I felt that by going to the commission something would surely be done about it. At that time, only one of the five commissioners, Brian Ouzounian, was sympathetic to this issue. I left feeling dejected, and didn’t start to regularly attend commission meetings until a few years later. By that time Brian was no longer on the commission.
Having attended most of the Airport Commission meetings over the past 14 years, I feel qualified to present a unique perspective. To broaden my knowledge, I reached out to several former and present-day commissioners to hear their views and to do some fact checking.
As I have witnessed and as my fact checking indicates, it never mattered what the composition of the commission was; be it pilots, lawyers, a scientist or even neighbors of the airport. Over the years the commission operated in a manner that approved almost all items brought before them by airport staff. All the commissioners, past and present, felt, accurately, that their power was limited to being advisory to City Council. Some felt that they had only slightly more influence than public speakers. (Normal public attendance at most meetings has been sparse; less than a dozen. On rare occasions there would be a large turnout.)
A few commissioners told me they were pressured by a former airport manager and city manager not to make waves. One commissioner was taken to lunch and lobbied to vote a certain way. Unrelated, one commissioner who bucked the status quo told me about physical threats they received.
Regardless of who sits on the commission, many of the Los Angeles community concerns were not given serious consideration. Even to this day the toxic air pollution concerns of SMO neighbors have not been given enough attention.
So over the years, and witnessed by the huge growth of SMO into a private jet center, it was aviation interests that drove the commission. But little by little I witnessed a slow process of the whittling away of this machine. Today’s commission is interested in addressing serious community concerns that have not been resolved regardless of how hard former commissions have tried or what their intentions were.
Pilots have had the same opportunity to apply for a seat on the Airport Commission as any qualified Santa Monica resident. However, aviation interests have always had at least one seat at the commission in the form of the airport manager. Today, we have a commissioner who is an air quality scientist. Should the Airport Commission be concerned about the air quality the airport is generating into the downwind neighborhoods? They should, according to the Airport Commission Mission Statement (first paragraph).
Commission Chair David Goddard has been a leader in converting the commission into a body that is fulfilling its mission. The commission is finally making recommendations to City Council, something they had not done over the years I’ve attended meetings. When asked by the commission regarding how they could follow up on their advisories to City Council, then Airport Manager Bob Trimborn said he didn’t know as it never happened before. Think about that. It speaks volumes.
Now that the commission is finally positioned to fairly represent community concerns, pro aviation special interests are crying foul. To these special interests, the public is a nuisance, but we airport neighbors know it is the airport that is a nuisance. The court has already ruled that the airport is a nuisance to neighbors in North Westdale.
Today’s Airport Commission is doing what it should be doing and doing it very well by advising City Council on airport matters that affect the city. Still, there is certainly work to be done regarding air pollution.
Martin Rubin is director of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution and president, North Westdale Neighborhood Association.