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El Toro Supporters Try New Maneuver

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Proponents of an airport at El Toro want to make it virtually impossible for airport opponents to place a measure on the ballot--aimed at blocking the controversial project--before June 2000.

Airport supporters are seeking legislation that would change state law to require that all countywide initiatives be scheduled at the nearest primary or general election unless the Board of Supervisors decided that an immediate special election is warranted.

A key anti-airport official called the gambit being played out in Sacramento a “dirty trick.”

No primaries or general elections are scheduled in 1999, so the board--which now has a pro-airport majority--could push any El Toro ballot measure to 2000. Under current law, supervisors are required to immediately place an initiative on the ballot when presented with petitions from 20% of those who voted in the last gubernatorial race. Currently, that would require that 154,801 valid signatures be gathered for any El Toro election.

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A Times Orange County poll conducted in May found that residents remain almost evenly divided about the airport proposal. But the poll found that two-thirds of voters want another chance to cast ballots about whether an airport is built.

Airport supporters say their goal is simply to ensure that the maximum number of voters decide the issue. They point out that general elections generate much higher turnouts than special, one-issue elections.

“This is a decision that affects the entire community, so we want to let as many voters as possible decide this,” said Bruce Nestande, the former county supervisor who heads of Citizens for Jobs and the Economy, which is pushing the legislation. The group’s chairman is George Argyros, a leading El Toro backer and a county business leader.

But airport opponents are fighting hard in Sacramento to kill the proposal, saying it could force them to wait for a year or longer to bring the ballot measure before the voters.

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“This is really a dirty trick,” said Paul Eckles, who heads the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, the coalition of South County cities that oppose the airport. “It would thwart the will of the people by making us wait the maximum amount of time to get a measure on the ballot.”

Earlier this month, Citizens for Jobs and the Economy got its proposal added as an amendment to an unrelated bill sponsored by Assemblyman Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks).

El Toro foes persuaded Hertzberg to drop the amendment a few days later, but Nestande said his group is now shopping around for another sponsor. “It is still alive as long as the Legislature is in session,” he said.

In 1994, Orange County voters narrowly approved Measure A, which amended the county’s general plan to include an airport at El Toro. A year later, they rejected a second ballot measure by El Toro foes that would have invalidated Measure A.

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Still, a third ballot measure is seen by many as the best shot the South County has to prevent the project. South County leaders announced earlier this year that they will sponsor a new initiative but have not decided when.

A special election on the issue would tend to help airport opponents, who are considered far more motivated and likely to turn out for a single-issue vote. In a letter to the chairman of Senate Committee of Elections and Reapportionment, a lobbyist for the pro-airport group charged that anti-airport forces were trying to “manipulate the initiative process by selecting the smallest voter turnout possible.”

But El Toro foes say it’s supporters who are doing the manipulating by attempting to change long-standing state election laws.

Eckles said having the ballot measure during a general election can only help airport backers. With many issues demanding voters’ attention, they are more likely to rely on expensive slate mailers when casting their ballots.

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“The election can be more easily manipulated by money because people are less familiar with the issue,” Eckles said.

The county plans to convert the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into an international airport capable of handling 19 million to 28 million passengers per year by 2020. Airport opponents have their own plan for the 4,700-acre base that calls for office towers, homes, parks, a university but no airport. They have talked about a ballot measure that would let voters decide between their plan and the county’s proposal.


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