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Time for Openness on El Toro’s Reuse : * Panel’s Seating Was Milestone; Candor Next on Agenda

After months of controversy, representatives of the county and the cities closest to the base finally sat down last week to start discussing what to do with the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station after the Marines leave. If the past is prologue, the talks will not be easy.

However, the planning sessions should be marked by refreshing openness, unlike the recently acknowledged suppression last year of part of a regional report that surely will be of use to the participants.

Already, relations between proponents and opponents of converting El Toro into a commercial airport have become increasingly strained and largely have pitted North County against South County. Cities in the north, the main backers of the airport proposal, complained they were being left out of the planning process. The divisiveness spilled over to the Board of Supervisors.

After a number of false starts, a welcome agreement was finally reached that the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority would consist of the five county supervisors, three Irvine City Council members and one Lake Forest council member. Representatives from other cities will be on subcommittees. However, the formation of the reuse authority did not stop the bickering over issues like Irvine’s wish to annex El Toro. But actually sitting at the table did allow the planning to begin.

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The Defense Department has always said it wants to deal with one entity representing Orange County, and local officials must heed that warning. In the difficult process of planning for El Toro’s future, give thanks for even small milestones.

The process was not helped by the Southern California Assn. of Governments’ suppression last April of the part of a report on aviation showing that the base had a good chance of being a successful civilian airport. The suppression would seem to be illegal, given a California Supreme Court ruling that “selective disclosure” of information by a public agency is unlawful.

Southern California Assn. of Governments’ Executive Director Mark Pisano said it was not illegal because the report was not officially transmitted. But even if he’s technically correct, the full report should have been released in the spirit of giving the current base planners the best and most complete available thinking. The study was funded by the Federal Aviation Administration, meaning taxpayers paid for it and had a right to know its contents.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments is a regional planning group whose members include numerous cities and counties, including Orange County. It should draw up plans, not calculate the political effect of its information and conclusions, and use the anticipated fallout as justification for suppressing its reports.

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The part of the study that was made public examined the impact on existing regional airports such as Orange County’s John Wayne Airport if Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino County and March Air Force Base in Riverside County were downsized or closed.

The portion that was not made public, but was provided to John Wayne Airport officials, also addressed the possible consequences of closing El Toro. The Times was able to obtain the full report only by filing a request under the California Public Records Act. But information needed for a fully informed public debate must be made public when it becomes available, not months later.

Fortunately, the entire report has now become available outside the association of governments and John Wayne Airport. That’s good for the important planning now under way, but the report should not have been so difficult to obtain.


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