Reform legislation would bring greater accountability to airport authority

History scholar Paul Gagnon once said we learn more through failure than victory. The unsuccessful effort to build a new international airport at MCAS Miramar last year is a perfect example of this philosophy.

Created by state law in 2001, the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority was assigned to manage Lindbergh Field, act as the land-use commission for the region's 16 airports, and place a long-term international airport site on the ballot by November 2006.

Granted, the authority had a difficult task finding land in a region that affords scant open space, and public opinion did not favor Miramar. In the end, the ballot measure lost 62 percent to 38 percent in the November 2006 election and sent the airport authority fleeing for cover in the nearest hangar.

Had the authority been more connected to the public and prevailing attitudes, it may not have suffered defeat. With few of nine appointed members being elected officials, however, the authority is disconnected from voters and this bodes poorly for the future of our airports.

In an effort to connect voters with the authority, I convened two public hearings last fall to hear from experts and citizens alike as to how they would change it to better serve the needs of the flying public and the business community that relies on efficient cargo services and business travel. They offered pointed suggestions, which signaled the need for reform.

After gathering hours of testimony, I introduced legislation in December 2006 to reform the authority and make it accountable to San Diego County residents. The legislation has four main tenets. First, taxpayers would save more than $500,000 a year through the elimination of the authority's three executive board-member salaries. Second, all board members would be elected officials within the county and directly accountable to the public. Third, all board members would be appointed by local governments rather than the governor and sheriff, as is now the case for two members. Fourth, airport land-use compatibility decisions would be returned to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG).

San Diego's airport authority is the only one in the state that pays a six-figure salary to some of its board members -- three people called the executive committee. These executive members earn about $172,000. The catch is that none are required to perform any more work for the authority than the members who receive a $100 per meeting reimbursement. In fact, one former executive board member held a full-time job in addition to his authority responsibilities. This is a waste of the taxpayers' money and should be ended.

Permitting only elected officials to serve on the authority yields greater accountability. The current board includes only two elected officials. Requiring elected officials to hold all seats ensures a better understanding and responsiveness to community concerns. Constituents are familiar with calling their city council member or county supervisor to air views on everything from housing to the environment, and our airports should be no exception. Moreover, elected officials answer directly to the voters every election day.

Requiring local governments to select board members reassures the public that the authority is not a bastion for "political insiders" to safely land. Currently, the governor appoints one authority member, and the San Diego County sheriff appoints one other. No airport authority in the state allows the governor or sheriff such a role in the appointment process. The latter is especially unusual, given that the authority has its own police force and does not regularly rely on the sheriff's department.

Finally, by removing land-planning decisions from the airport authority follows the state norm. Of California's 11 largest airports, San Diego's airport authority is the only one that both operates an international airport and makes decisions about land-use compatibility around airports. Before the airport authority existed, SANDAG served as the Airport Land Use Commission. Since then, SANDAG has adopted a regional comprehensive plan and reformed its own internal operating structure. It only makes sense to have the agency responsible for adopting and implementing the region's long-term ground transportation plan also coordinate the region's long-term aviation strategy.

The Senate Local Government Committee passed my reform legislation Feb. 8, and it now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee. As this bill moves through the Legislature, I'm optimistic it will receive widespread support as more people learn of the need for change at the authority. Signing this bill into law would be a testament to just how much the region learned from last year's failed Miramar vote.

I want to bring greater accountability to the authority, including saving taxpayers nearly a half-million dollars annually. Please let me know your thoughts by visiting my Web site and registering your views.

State Sen. Kehoe, D-San Diego, represents the 39th District. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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