Visioning Process up for Comedy Primetime Emmy

It is finally official, the City’s purported airport ‘visioning’ process should be considered for a comedy Emmy.  This hilarious show is now just beginning its third season.   Each new season has consistently built upon the farcical edifice of earlier seasons to scale new comedic heights in examining the premise of “government gone wild”.

In the first series (Phase I), which ended in September 2011, the story opened with city staff stating in an initial memo to the council that:

“The City has embarked on a rigorous three-phase public process regarding the 227-acre Santa Monica Airport Campus.”

Phase I

The city paid various consultants including Rand ($145,000), HR&A ($79,000), and Point C ($81,000) to lay the initial visioning groundwork (see here, and here).  When the money was all spent, and the results were presented to the expectant public at the Airport Commission, this is what we learned:

  • Point C was directed (see here) to engage participants “in a conversation focused specifically on ideas to craft a new direction for the future of the airport as an airport and as a community asset.
  • The Rand study did not not address ANY of the major concerns of the community: aircraft emissions, noise, or safety” (see here).
  • The economic impact analysis prepared by HR&A twists data to reflect a pro-airport bias. It fails to separate aviation-related employment from non-aviation employment at the airport. (see here).
  • And a whole host of other problems (see here).

Not surprisingly there was public outrage and and a deep suspicion as to staff’s true motives in the visioning process.  Basically after Phase I, the public expected to see some ‘visioning’ of what might happen to some or all of SMO in the future OTHER THAN CONTINUED AIRPORT USE.  None was studied or even mentioned.  All three consulting groups were instructed by staff to only to look at the 40-acre parcel of land that is already non-aviation land.   Never mind the 227 acres claimed in the initial staff memo.  Leave the aviation alone, appeared to be the true Phase I mantra.  A fat lot of good that did anybody, the studies were worthless and the money wasted.

Nonetheless, the city pressed on with the second season (Phase II) with the express promise to “look at all alternatives between continued operation up to and including closure”.  If this promise had not been made, there might well have been a riot at that time.  As it was the community hunkered down to wait and see if city staff would get back on track for Phase II.
Once again bitter disappointment was to follow.
Phase II
In Phase II, the city paid the consulting firm of Moore Iacofano Goltsman, Inc. (MIG) $148,000 (see here) to guide and report on a series of public discussion sessions.  In the end some 32 discussion groups were held at various locations in the city involving some 312 participants.  Consistent with the findings of various community surveys including of course the CASMAT survey (see here) which included 1,100 respondents, 80% of the visioning attendees indicated a desire for the airport to be closed or significantly reduced according to the comment cards published later.  19% of the attendees were apparently happy with the airport by the same measure, however, in a separate field, 19% of the city attendees also indicated that they were pilots or represented an aviation advocacy group.  Many of these individuals came from far away to attend the sessions.
The city visioning process was gamed and hijacked by a well organized aviation lobby so that every one of the 19% (and there was at least one at each session, sometimes 4 or 5 out of 12) came with exactly the same set of talking points (see here).  Public outcry once again followed.  No attempt was made to account for this subversion of the visioning intent however, and the visioning report went ahead regardless.
In his defense, the consultant’s report made a good effort at presenting all the viewpoints expressed, listing 5 main areas where change was desired at the airport.  Four of these areas were reflective of the wishes of the general public, the fifth encapsulated the minor tweaks to “aviation business as usual” proposed by the 19% aviation proponents.
However, when city staff took the content of this report (see here) and prepared their recommendations to the City Council, every one of the general publics suggestions had been removed, and only the pilot community wish list remained.  Staff recommendations in their summary report (see here) were basically that during Phase III, they should primarily look into these pilot ‘tweaks’.  They even suggested that in so doing they would be pursuing a ‘green’ initiative at SMO.  This may have been one of the comedic high points of the show thus far.
As expected, the public was absolutely outraged and felt that they had been deliberately deceived and misled by city staff.  Moreover the consensus was that city staff’s recommendations to Council bore no resemblance to the actual report presented by the consultant. (see here).
In the mean time, in parallel with the city sessions, and in response to public complaints about the city visioning process, as well as the CASMAT and OPA surveys that had showed more than 80% local opposition to the airport remaining “as is”, the Airport Commission embarked on a visioning process of its own to give the public what they wanted (see here).  This visioning workshop was very well received and attended by the public.  Meanwhile, city staff were instructed to boycott the entire visioning workshop (see here), and the city manager publicly attacked the Airport Commissioners, accusing the commission of being a covert arm of CASMAT (see here) or vice-verca.
Apparently it was important to make sure than no actual real visioning got done during the entire visioning process.  This final cliffhanger episode of the Phase II season clearly set the stage for a whole new level of drama in the third and final season.
Phase III
And so we come the the start of season three (Phase III).  The opener was enough to leave the public completely gobsmacked.  The public works department presented the overview of the Phase III process at the May 8, 2012 City Council meeting (see here).  Note that despite promises of greater openness, the Airport Commission and the public that rely on it as a forum to voice their concerns are no longer part of the visioning process, having been struck off during Phase II for trying to actually ‘vision’ without the city-authorized blinkers installed (see here).
Among the more outrageous things that crept into this purported Phase III plan were the following:
  • The flight school re-location plan.  This crazy scheme to pay SMO flight schools to perform pattern flying at other airports met with immediate and overwhelming public opposition.  City staff had to re-introduce it three times into City Council, while carefully avoiding Airport Commission review and public discussion.  Nowhere before had this scheme been mentioned as part of phase III, yet now it was to be rammed through without any review or discussion.  Fortunately a massive galvanization of public opposition (see CASMAT’s missing impact report – here) as well as an outcry from neighboring cities with airports was able to minimize the impact of this PR disaster, and get the idea shelved before any real damage was done.  Who thinks up this stuff?
  • Update the airport website to be more friendly (budget impact of course).  How is that part of “a rigorous three-phase public process regarding the 227-acre Santa Monica Airport Campus.”?
  • Provide more education about flight operations.  The problem here is presumably that us members of public need to be ‘educated’ to appreciate General Aviation (GA) in our midst.  Not what we were hoping for to be sure.
  • Hold an annual “Open House”.  Ohhh goodie….can’t wait to see the airplanes up close.
  • Installing Ground Power Units (this was one of the aviation advocate talking points in the city sessions).  Basically these things (which are hugely expensive to install) mean that jet aircraft don’t need to run their own engines when idling on the ground.  The supposed benefit is a reduction in emissions, but the main beneficiaries are the jet operators themselves that save vast amounts of money on fuel costs.
  • Evaluating a mid-field run-up area (another aviation wish list item).  Good idea, we’ll move the fume trails right next to Clover park where there is a school and all kinds of other kids playing who can appreciate the toxins.
  • Providing alternative fuel stations (another aviation request).
  • Making improvements in navigational aids GPS and other aviation facilities.  Yup I get that one, sure will help make the airport a better neighbor by doing that.
  • The list goes on.

Now perhaps it is just me, but that looks for all the world like a to-do list for a city that plans on being in the aviation business for a long time to come.  Nothing in there talks about any reductions or anything to truly mitigate airport impact.  Nothing whatsoever to do with ‘visioning’.

Indeed you need to get right to the end of the overview to find the only remaining ‘visioning’ in the defunct visioning facade.  Section (4) says ‘Evaluate possible design improvements for non-aviation land”.  Can you believe it, we’re back to talking only about that 40 acres that is not part of the airport anyway.  All the aviation land is to be improved (for aviation purposes of course).
Now if the city were contemplating the possibility of other land uses, it would not invest vast sums in ground power units that would be useless if jets were no longer part of the SMO fleet (a thing advocated for by almost 70% of CASMAT survey respondents).
But there is one final twist that almost leaves you breathless with the sheer audacity of the staff’s proposals and it is this:
Staff has decided to combine the Phase III visioning process for the airport with the on-going visioning process for the Santa Monica Pier!   Why you might ask.  The answer given was “because of the obvious commonalities between them”.  Obvious commonalities?  Between an airport and a fishing pier?  It boggles the mind!  I even suggested at the Airport Commission meeting when this was announced that the only possible commonality would be the fact that both the pier and the runway have long thin strips at their center.
Does staff perhaps intend to pave over the pier and open a second runway for SMO?   If that is not it, then this combined visioning idea is the biggest slap in face for the public yet.  Basically the city is saying to us that they care so little about all we have said regarding the airport that they will now only ‘vision’ the non-aviation land, and even that they will combine with the pier.
The cost of this latest bit of combined visioning?  Well a cool $106,000 more is added to the total for MIG consultants (see here).  Oh and another $500,000 for IBI group (see here).  Ain’t it great to be rich!
Oh, and by the way, as part of the new openness and inclusive approach to the airport, the city kindly invited the airport commission to have a representative on this new combo visioning.  How nice. 
“When would that meeting be?” one commissioner asked.  The answer was 2:30 the following weekday afternoon.  Airport commissioners have real jobs also.  No surprise that none could attend given a half day notice.  I’m sure the staff were devastated.  But at least they asked, they can check the “openness” box and move on down their list.

When does this all go down?  Item 3-I of tonight’s City Council Agenda (see here), that’s when.

UPDATE:  I just watched the Council rubber stamp Item 3-I with only a few perfunctory questions.  It appears that the end result of the entire airport ‘visioning’ process according to Susan Cline is to be “looking into if walkways and pavements in the western end of the non-aviation land can be improved.”

I am quite sure that all the people who took the time to attend the city visioning sessions and make their feelings known will be very happy to hear just how seriously their input is taken.  They trusted the city to heed what they said.  After each phase ended in a whitewash, there was a public outcry, and after each outcry the city promised that the next stage of the ‘visioning’ would explore ALL options up to and including full closure.  It seems they were all lies.

We are at the end now, and all that our ‘visioning’ will look into is “fixing a few footpaths”!  The public trust was misplaced, the city is either stone deaf, or has been lying to us all along.

I hear the sound of drums in the deep…