The City Council, which has been on a two-week holiday recess, delayed another two hours Tuesday night before breaking its silence on a lawsuit filed last month by attorney/pilot Clark Garen threatening to raze the homes of thousands of residents in a dispute over noise regulations at Torrance Municipal Airport.
While Garen and other pilots walked nervously in the lobby and corridors of city hall, the council made decisions on the design of a new fire station and whether or not to use cable funds to purchase television equipment.
But when the airport issue finally came up, in a request by City Atty. Stanley Remelmeyer to appropriate $100,000 from the airport fund to defend a similar suit filed against the city in U.S. District Court (the money was approved), it was as if the floodgate had been raised.
"Mr. Remelmeyer has said my suit is without merit," Garen recited from a four-page prepared statement, from which he often deviated. "My only comment is that, as a lawyer, I know that you don't spend $100,000 to defend a lawsuit without merit; you spend $100,000 when you are guilty as charged.
"Money is not going to stop flyovers," Garen said, referring to an noisy aerial demonstration by pilots that was planned for Monday night but was postponed until Wednesday afternoon because of bad weather.
"You have lost control of the pilots; you have lost control of the airport; you have lost control of your ability to govern the people. Money is not a substitute for good government."
Next, the mayor, Jim Armstrong:
"Mr. Garen tells us we should not spend any money because the city attorney has expressed an opinion," Armstrong said coolly after sharply warning Garen to limit his comments to whether the city should appropriate the funds or not.
"Mr. Garen knows that opinions do not resolve lawsuits. I suppose we should stand there defenseless. If you believe that then you shouldn't walk around without a keeper."
Then, the rest of the City Council:
"Mr. Garen has done a disservice to the people of Torrance," Councilman Bill Applegate said.
"Bullying tactics are not the way to reason," Councilwoman Katy Geissert said.
Councilman George Nakano, usually silent during council discussions, said "I don't think fear and intimidation are going to move people to your side. It just creates alienation."
"When little old ladies in their homes, who have worked all their lives, are put upon by someone who has a history of irresponsible actions in this city, it is repugnant, to put it lightly," said Councilman Dan Walker. "It's an insult to the people who use the airport.
"I am absolutely shocked that the legal profession continues to call him (Garen) a member. I wonder how much longer they will continue to call him a member. I better not say any more before I get in any deeper."
Every week, a different quotation appears on the City Council agenda. Councilman Mark Wirth limited his comments to repeating this week's quotation by German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: "Noise is the most impertinent of all forms of interruption. It is not only an interruption, but also a disruption of thought."
Garen spoke again later in the meeting.
"You usually reserve your more personal attacks on me until after the oral communications," when the public can no longer respond, Garen said. "You don't like our method of communication. You don't hear us. Obviously you don't like aviators."
Garen said the pilots are willing to accept noise standards adopted by the state Department of Transportation. The state follows a different method than the city in determining acceptable noise levels. The state uses an average of operations, the city counts individual operations. Garen did not give specific levels, but he said the city levels are only about half of what the state allows.
(The Santa Monica City Council on Tuesday lowered its airport noise level from 100 decibels to 95 decibels as part of a previously approved plan by residents and pilots. The noise monitors at Santa Monica are closer to the airport than at Torrance.)
"The members of the City Council are still operating on the sandbox theory," Garen said. "If I take some sand from your sandpile, you will steal some sand from my sandpile. This approach only allows for one solution, more sand.
"We have a concept in law: the right and the power. You do not have a moral right to set restrictions, but you have the legal power. Pilots do not have the moral right to conduct noisy flyover operations, but they have the legal power. You do not have the legal power to stop us. We know how to play that game too."
Ted Stinnis, president of the Torrance Area Pilots Assn., a group that has not officially sanctioned Garen's tactics, told the council that 10 years of frustration has led to the unorthodox strategy.
"Take heed," he said calmly. "We have been coming to you with reasonable approaches and we have gotten nowhere. You have never given us one single concession. Anyone who visits the airport is appalled by its condition.
"We have to throw up our hands in anguish and turn to some of our more militant members. You people have not played fair. You have double-crossed us. We don't have a fair and equitable situation. All we see is a downward trend."
Amicable Solution Asked
Two homeowners pleaded with the council to come to an amicable solution.
"This is causing a lot of problems for a lot of people," said Frank Schilling, the only individual among 20,000 John Does named in the Superior Court suit against the homeowners.
The suit says homeowners who complain that the airport is interfering with the enjoyment of their property should have their homes condemned. The suit says the deed agreement that transferred ownership of the airport from the federal government to the city in 1948 prohibits the city from allowing land near the airport to be used in a manner that would limit the "usefulness" of the airport.
In the federal suit filed against the city, Garen claims the city violated that portion of the deed. He is asking the court to force the city to rescind all noise-reducing regulations at the airport, condemn the homes of homeowners who complain that the airport is too noisy and return control of the airport to the federal government.
"This is going to cost me some money," Schilling said. "I would like to see the council or the residents get together with the pilots and reach some decisions."
The city has implemented several noise-reducing measures at the airport, including a moratorium on weekend and holiday flight training, the creation of a city board to hear airport regulation violations and takeoff procedures that require airplanes to turn at or before Hawthorne Boulevard about 8,000 feet from the takeoff point on the runway.
Another resident, who identified herself as Number 21--the number on the lawsuit she was served--compared the current situation to the Nazi concentration camps where Jews were given numbers.
"Since this gentleman had the nerve to give me a number, I will identify myself as Number 21," she said. "I never thought I would see that day again when people were given numbers. This is a terrible burden we face right now. Couldn't he be nice and fly his plane like the other pilots?" She left without disclosing her name.
And, as usual, the mayor had the last word.
"We don't claim infallibility," Armstrong said. "We have worked as best we could. We are obligated to the entire community. We are constantly trying to find the middle ground. Now we are involved in another arena, the courtroom.
"But for the record, I will tell you now that I will make every effort to take a new approach on the matter. If necessary, to start from scratch.