After an eventful year, Santa Monica Airport will see yet another shakeup this month as Nelson Hernandez, Senior Advisor on Airport Affairs, heads into retirement and to Puerto Rico to be with his family.

His successor will not hold the job for very long – as the City plans to dissolve the position next summer.

Hernandez says he was already planning to move back to the island for retirement before Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico devastated and largely without power.

Hernandez has been able to be in contact with some family members, who must drive the island’s treacherous roads for miles in order to get the cell service needed to call family in the United States.

“I’ve reached out to FEMA to see if I can work for them,” Hernandez told the Daily Press. When asked if the on-going catastrophe in Puerto Rico has put the issues he handled in Santa Monica in perspective, Hernandez said “it’s all relative. What goes on at the airport is really important to a lot of people here.”

The City created the Senior Advisor position in 2015 to handle public policy analysis, research, Federal advocacy, media relations and community outreach concerning the airport. The position is limited term, ending June 30, 2018.

Hernandez has already been replaced. Suja Lowenthal, the Community and Government Engagement Manager for the Big Blue Bus, will take over Hernandez’s office at the airport shortly after he leaves Oct. 6.

Lowenthal has been at the BBB since 2012 and brings over 20 years of experience in government affairs to the position, according to a press release from the City.

“Santa Monica Airport is in transition,” City Manager Rick Cole said in a statement. “Among our key staff leaders, Suja has the breadth of experience and knowledge to continue the stakeholder engagement and thoughtful strategy required to implement the Consent Decree to reduce health and safety risks and work toward the evolution of SMO to a great park in 2028.”

Lowenthal’s salary in the new position is $162,036 per year. She has a BA in Economics from UCLA, a Masters in Business Administration from Cal State LA and a Policy, Planning and Development Doctorate from USC.

“I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the community in this new role,” Lowenthal said. “While we have made significant strides at the airport in the past two years, I look forward to continued engagement with the community to address concerns related to airport operations, implementation of Council policy, and to establish a vision for airport land after it closes in 2028.”

There are few issues in the City of Santa Monica that inspire as much ire as SMO. Nearby residents have been fiercely advocating its closure for years – citing fears over the health effects of jets flying over their houses. Aviation groups have fought just as hard to keep it open, arguing its economic importance. Pilot groups argue its closure will create a burden on other nearby airports that will see an inevitable increase in traffic.

A closed-door agreement in January between the City and the FAA to immediately shorten the runway and eventually give Santa Monica officials control over the airport at the end of 2028 has done little to cool emotions on either side.

The Consent Decree resolved pending court cases that both pilots and Sunset Park residents believe their side could have won. In his position, Hernandez fielded questions – and angry emails – from both sides of the issue over the last two years.

“Some people thought I did a good job, others didn’t,” Hernandez said. He said he enjoyed the work over all. Now he heads to his next venture with a new purpose – helping Puerto Rico get off the ground.

Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press