Visioning with blinkers on

On Tuesday night City chambers were filled to overflowing for item 4-A on the agenda, the motion to approve City staff’s phase III visioning process recommendations following presentation of the MIG consultant’s phase II report.  CASMAT (see here) and other neighborhood and community groups have opposed this rubber-stamping, and Council members acknowledged that they had received an unprecedented e-mail barrage from city residents in opposition to continuing current airport operations.  So much so that they were unable to keep up with, or reply to, the incoming e-mail traffic.

As raised in the MIG report, and reinforced by many of the 43 persons who requested to speak, a prevalent issue continues to be public perceptions that City staff deliberately ignores community wishes in favor of aviation interests, and that staff are pressing forward with an SMO essentially “as is” strategy.  The discord between staff Phase III recommendations and the actual content of the MIG report, which staff largely ignored (other than aspects favored by aviation interests), is simply the latest example of this trend.  As a result there has been a loss of ‘trust’ between the public and the City, that up until last night was focussed primarily at City staff.  It is safe to say that what happened at the meeting has now transferred a measure of this mistrust to the City Council members themselves, a reality that some speakers suggested may be reflected in the upcoming elections.

When summing up after public comments, the staff and Council members thrust was basically “trust us, we’re dealing with it but we can’t tell you how”.  The complete lack of any progress since 1981 when an earlier City Council formalized City policy to state that “The City should work to shut down the airport as soon as possible”, combined with the fact that just 3 years later in 1984 the City negotiated away much of their ability to change anything until 2015, implies that over the years, Council and staff’s idea of “dealing with it”, is to pay no attention to their citizens or to this issue, and to make no changes at SMO that might upset any aviation interests, particularly not the big bad bogey man they portray the FAA to be.

Perhaps the most poignant illustration of Council detachment from the “airport issue” was when Mayor Richard Bloom forced Marianne Parker Brown, widow of Rick Brown the recently deceased chair of the Airport Commission, to leave the microphone before she had finished her comments.  Yes her two minutes was up, but here was a woman trying to ensure that the cause her husband fought so long and hard for was not allowed to falter through City Council disinterest or other unspoken agendas.  A bit of extra time should clearly have been allowed, moreover, perhaps some public thanks from the Council for all her husband’s efforts might have been in order.  To Mayor Bloom’s credit, I understand that when he became aware of his mistake, he took the trouble to go and apologize privately to Marianne.

Rick Brown was outspoken in his opposition to the City’s visioning process, and in his opinion that the process was badly flawed and did not take account of community wishes.  For this opposition, he was publicly criticized in the press by City manager Rod Gould (see here), who stated that the Airport Commission was exceeding its authority and should stay out of the visioning process.  He further implied that the commission was not ‘balanced’ enough, that commission members were part of a larger conspiracy, and that the commission makeup should be changed.  Last month City staff were instructed not to attend the Airport Commission visioning workshop when it went ahead in the face of staff opposition (see here).  More than one speaker from the community stated at last night’s meeting that this workshop had been the most informative and best run example of city government they had ever attended.  City staff’s behavior regarding the City’s own Airport Commission has been frankly hostile towards the commission’s role in informing the public, and is inconsistent with a City interested in public input, for which the Airport Commission has to date been the only forum and champion.

It is clear that despite having just read out Marianne’s name, Mayor Bloom did not recognize who was speaking, but since a large number of the public speakers had just before complimented her husband by name for this tireless efforts on their behalf, this incident can only serve to illustrate exactly how little focus many Council members actually devote to the issue.  The council appears to be happy to let staff “deal with it” and sees no need to become personally involved.  Marianne’s parting words as she was shooed from the microphone were “I hope my husband is replaced on the Airport Commission by a good man…”.

So do we all.  But we know full well that staff is now pushing the City Council to fill this position with a pilot in order to make the commission more ‘balanced’.  Of course another advantage for staff would be that the commission would then be bogged down in internal debate, and as a result, would be hampered in its role as the only body within City government championing the public in this cause, that requests (and sometimes receives) additional data on airport matters, and generally ensures staff transparency.  Such an outcome would certainly make staff’s lives much easier in the future.

With the exception of adding an amendment proposed by Kevin McKeown to instruct staff to look into the City’s legal options in the event that an agreement with the FAA to restrict operations cannot be reached, the City Council went ahead and rubber-stamped the staff recommendations, despite the public outcry against so doing.  Council member McKeown’s amendment was the sole tangible action taken to address the fact that staff recommendations essentially pander only to the 19% of visioning session attendants that were pilots or aviation proponents (residing where, in large part, we know not).

The Council could have simply amended staff recommendations to instruct staff to look into ALL possible measures to mitigate airport impact including measures representing the other four of the five positions identified in the MIG report and favored by 81% of attendees (all four involved concrete reductions in flight operations).  Instead the recommendations were approved to direct staff look into only those measures consistent with the tiny minority of attendees that were airport users, and which imply little or no change to aircraft operations.

All politics is local.  Council members advocated seeking the help of federal politicians in this issue.  While that is certainly a critical part of the puzzle, we first need to make sure that the people on our City Council are committed to supporting the citizens living in their own city.  Right now it is not clear they are even paying attention.  The upcoming fight over the next airport commissioner will likely once again pit a City staff recommendation against the wishes of the public.  We will see if the huge outpouring of anger and frustration that the Council witnessed last night left any impression, or if it is to be ‘do what staff says’, that is, “business as usual” once again.

The public will not simply “relax and remove the stress from our lives” as suggested in closing comments by Council member Bob Holbrook.  For him to think that the “stress” in our lives caused by the endless noise and pollution from the airport could possibly be removed by the questionable act of “trusting our City Council” clearly represents a level of misunderstanding that is difficult to fathom.