CITY HALL — A letter released by City Hall Wednesday revealed concerns held by top city staff that some airport commissioners have crossed the line between “dispassionate policy advisors” to the City Council and neighborhood activists set on influencing the future of Santa Monica Airport.
“We are all biased, we all have preconceived notions and we are creatures of our previous experience. That’s all a given,” City Manager Rod Gould said Wednesday. “It’s not a bright line, but we haven’t seen the level of advocacy and involvement before that is currently on the Airport Commission.”
The two-page document, from Gould to Airport Commission Chair E. Richard Brown, lays out in pointed language the manager’s belief that airport commissioners have engaged in community activism in a way that suggests that the commission “may be losing its bearings.”
The most glaring example mentioned was a survey released on the website of the activist group Community Against Santa Monica Airport Traffic entitled “Santa Monica Airport Commission Visioning Workshop Survey,” which was both briefly discussed at the Nov. 28 commission meeting and distributed at a state senate hearing about SMO on Nov. 30 by a community group under the name of Airport Commissioner David Goddard.
The title suggests that it is an official survey sanctioned by City Hall— which it is not — but that’s not the end of it.
“[T]he larger issue of the survey is that it begs the question as to whether CASMAT is a covert arm of the Airport Commission or the Airport Commission is a vehicle of CASMAT,” Gould wrote. “Either way the commission loses legitimacy.”
The letter was drafted in response to a request by Brown that the Airport Commission be given the ability to review and comment on staff’s work relating to the second phase in a three-part visioning process about the future of the airport.
The second phase will involve a series of community workshops where people can express their desires for the future of the airport, including the status quo and outright closure.
Several residents had said that the first phase of the process was slanted in favor of the airport, and that they did not have faith that City Hall would let them speak their mind in upcoming meetings.
Commissioners asked to weigh in on an introduction that Assistant Director of Public Works Susan Cline said would be read to participants of the work groups explaining what City Hall could do at the airport without raising the ire of the Federal Aviation Administration, which has sued City Hall successfully in the past for restricting aviation activities at the airport.
“I frankly thought that the way the process has been structured, there was a risk that may be very narrowing of the discussion to a set of parameters that city staff was comfortable with, whether or not the council or residents were comfortable with it,” Brown said.
That request was brought up to the City Council Tuesday under a consent agenda item to contract with an outside consultant to design and run the second phase of the process.
That item was pulled for further discussion, at which point City Councilmember Kevin McKeown argued that it be granted in order to improve public confidence in the process.
“There were some that felt that phase one shifted opinion toward a certain point of view,” McKeown said. “We should go through it in such a way that makes the public confident that we are exploring all of the options.”
City Attorney Marsha Moutrie told the council that making staff’s work available was one thing, but giving the commission oversight over the process raised concerns.
First, it was important to maintain the separation between policy makers like the City Council and its advisory boards and commissions.
“Second,” Moutrie said, “there’s a mounting body of evidence that the Airport Commission is not interested in understanding a full range of options.”
All of the commissioners are residents of Sunset Park, home of the neighborhood group Friends of Sunset Park, which has long mobilized against the airport.
Goddard, the newest commissioner, is an active member in the group, and it is a message from him that appears on the printed version of the CASMAT survey that was distributed Nov. 30.
“I draw that line in that my responsibility is to advise the City Council through the Airport Commission on policy issues,” Goddard said of the survey. “With respect to taking a survey, that’s something that the community is doing because it is concerned about the visioning process.”
Commission meetings often have lopsided representation, with the majority of participants speaking against the airport. Pilots have complained that they see little point in speaking before the commission.
For his part, Brown considers himself the chair of the Airport Commission only, not a part of any advocacy group, and he feels that the commission has done a great deal to reach out to members of the flight school and pilot community to solicit their input about operations.
Still, he doesn’t think that airport commissioners have the responsibility to be disinterested observers.
“I don’t believe that coming on the commission means that people give up their points of view as citizens or residents of Santa Monica,” Brown said.