Signaling a possible breakthrough in the long-running impasse over airport expansion, the Burbank City Council and the airport authority plan to resume formal negotiations this week.
“During any conflict, there comes a time when it’s time to talk,” said Mayor Bob Kramer, who conducted closed meetings with airport officials to set up the talks.
Airport Commission President Joyce Streator said both parties “want to find some way to end this business.”
The thaw is the result of the rising costs of litigation for both sides, Kramer’s ascent to the mayor’s office and new participants in the debate, including the Burbank Chamber of Commerce, which recently came out against the city and in favor of the expansion plans.
Perhaps most importantly, the Glendale City Council has decided to drop Robert Garcin from the Airport Commission--the panel that governs the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority--on which he has served for 19 years.
Garcin, who was commission president from 1984 to 1994, has long been one of its most outspoken and controversial members. His replacement has not been selected, but finalists for the job include candidates who say they want to seek a middle ground on the airport dispute.
Reflecting the impact of a return to the bargaining table Friday, Councilman Ted McConkey, an anti-expansion leader and former Kramer ally, called Kramer’s actions “a stupid betrayal.”
Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena each appoint three representatives to the Airport Commission. Burbank’s three commissioners have long been at odds with the rest over the airport’s plan to build an expanded terminal with 19 gates to the north of its existing terminal. The new terminal would have the potential of expanding to 27 gates.
Proponents say the expansion is necessary to accommodate growth, improve safety and ensure that the airport remains competitive.
But Burbank, seeking to protect residents in the vicinity of the airport, is concerned about unbridled growth and increased noise and traffic. The city has argued that the airport should only expand to 16 gates.
Talks between the two sides broke down in August. Since then, the battle has been played out on multiple fronts in the courts. Public debate has become increasingly rancorous, with Burbank recently calling airport authority officials “scofflaws” and airport supporters accusing the city of a smear campaign.
But late last week the tone on both sides noticeably softened. “It’s time to resolve our differences. It’s time to end these many lawsuits,” Kramer said.
The 50-year-old mayor ran for office two years ago on a platform opposing the airport’s planned expansion. The City Council selected him as mayor in May.
Along with McConkey and former Councilwoman Susan Spanos, Kramer was instrumental in getting the city to take a harder-line position opposing the expansion plan.
His political history puts him in a unique position to close the gap in the dispute, Burbank City Manager Bud Ovrom said.
“It’s like Nixon was the only person who could go to China,” Ovrom said. "[Kramer] is taking a certain amount of political risk here.”
Said Kramer: “It’s not my desire to spend $3 million a year on attorneys for the next five years because we are unwilling to find terms for agreement.”
Burbank has spent $3.5 million in legal fees over the past year and has set aside another $2.5 million this year, Ovrom said.
The airport authority said it spent about $1.2 million in legal fees in the first 10 months of the recent fiscal year, and bills are still coming in. For the coming year, $1.2 million has been budgeted for legal fees.
Streator, the Airport Commission president, said one of the first breaks in the standoff occurred when Burbank Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paul Sago asked that she meet with Kramer.
Informal discussions between the two sides followed, ending with last week’s decision to hire a new mediator, Dana Peterson of Sausalito, and set a date for talks.
These developments have followed on the heels of vigorous publicity efforts by Burbank to advance its cause with voters, including mass mailings criticizing the airport to voters in Glendale and Pasadena. Pasadena fought back, filing a complaint with the state last week.
Streator made it clear that she credits Kramer, not the publicity campaign, for the recent rapprochement.
“It has almost had the opposite effect,” Streator said. “I truly believe the mayor wants us to be able to reach an amicable agreement . . . but Burbank’s continuing smear campaign makes me wonder.”
Glendale politicians also denied that Burbank’s efforts played a role in the council decision to eject Garcin.
Councilmen Dave Weaver said Garcin, 68, may have lost backing due to past criticism of his travels and of legal fees paid to a firm that employed his son.
For his part, Garcin said he is proud of his record on the commission and confused and disappointed by the decision. “Rest assured, I will be in touch,” he said. “I have never been a quitter, and I am not quitting now.”
The return to the bargaining table is not applauded by all. In a closed-door meeting of the council last week, McConkey alone balked at Kramer’s actions. He said he wants the battle to be resolved by the courts.
“Until recently, I had no idea of any softening of our position on the airport,” he said. “We [council members] disagree on all sorts of things. But we have maintained a united front on this. Now it’s shattered.”
McConkey particularly objects to Kramer’s choice of an advisor: Brian Bowman, a former president of the Airport Commission who endorsed the expansion plans.
“I haven’t put 10 years of my life into this effort to see anyone sell us out at this late date,” McConkey said.
Bowman himself said he was surprised by the mayor’s request for his input on the airport dispute. “It was truly out of the blue,” the 60-year-old manufacturer said.
Only two years ago, Bowman resigned from the airport board over disagreements with Kramer.
Kramer says he sought out Bowman anew “because he knew the players on the other side and because of his vast knowledge of airport operations.” Bowman, he added, “has been instrumental in bringing people to the table.”
According to information provided by the city as background on the new mediator and released by McConkey, Bowman has suggested as a starting point for discussion restrictions on service at three of the 19 gates planned for the new terminal.
In the talks, the city may also suggest new penalties for curfew violations and limiting growth of aviation to 10% above current levels for at least 10 years, according to the background documents.
Bowman emphasized that these are merely starting points for negotiation. Kramer agreed. “These are talking points that we haven’t discussed yet,” he said.
He denied that the intent is to sell out airport opponents. “I believe the people of Burbank are really sick and tired of lawsuits. I believe people would like to see an agreement,” he said.