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Pilot Bails as Airport Plan Spirals Down

No one asked the Dalai Lama during his Orange County visit this week if he’d like to take over the flagging El Toro airport project.

Too bad. The job is open. He might be a perfect fit.

For starters, his religious title translates to “teacher whose wisdom is as great as the ocean.” If ever a job required great wisdom, getting the airport project on track is it. Plus, His Holiness has debated politics and philosophy with China, all while maintaining godly serenity, so why should South County mayors fluster him?

‘Tis not to be.

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Instead, a deepening quiet has settled over the El Toro landscape.

The Board of Supervisors is on hiatus for much of the next month, and County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier has left the building.

Mittermeier, whose title translated to “manager whose style bugged the supervisors,” quit with her dignity intact and a $200,000 severance package.

Yes, there’s a sense of exile in the air around county government.

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Mittermeier’s parting remarks were telling.

She wasn’t ugly about it, but her words must have dug deeply into the hearts of the board majority and other supporters of an international airport at the former Marine base.

In essence, Mittermeier said, the airport is practically dead.

That’s not a literal interpretation, but it’s close, and what really stood out in her farewell interview with The Times was what she didn’t say.

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She didn’t say the airport planning had hit a temporary snag. She didn’t say she was confident things would turn around. She didn’t say the county must have an airport.

She said she questions whether one will ever be built at El Toro. She says South County opposition and lack of passion among airport supporters doesn’t add up to a public mandate.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla: Measure F.

The ballot measure, passed overwhelmingly in March, may make it impossible to build an airport unless it is modified or overturned, she said.

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That analysis virtually parrots what has been said by airport opponents and neutral observers in recent years. That is, this is a project that has steadily lost steam and which now is on the verge of fizzling out completely.

What Mittermeier didn’t explain, though, is how things got to that point. It’s not as though it happened when she went away for a long weekend.

The average citizen who wants a sprawling airport at El Toro thinks it might be nice to have one, but only to save the drive to Los Angeles. But given our conditioning to driving, that’s not enough of a reason to fight strongly for it.

That’s especially critical, because the airport opponents are rabidly opposed to it. An airport at El Toro is almost a life-and-death issue to them, and they will brook little disagreement over it.

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The average citizen who wants an airport doesn’t think the fight is worth it.

The board majority, then, is left with the predicament of touting a public works project that the public doesn’t want.

Nor is it clear whether a few weeks off for summer vacation will give the three-member majority enough time to figure out how to change things. The board is currently auditioning for an El Toro chief planner, and they better hope they find someone with incredibly persuasive powers.

Not long ago, that wasn’t necessary. I remember a former county official essentially telling a South County audience several years ago that, in essence, even if it didn’t want an airport, the county had the authority to put one in anyway.

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Famous last words.

Now, the board majority realizes it has all the wrong people in place.

Where it needed a dynamic CEO, it had the no-nonsense and invisible Mittermeier.

Where it needed a credible and p.r.-savvy board majority, it has, well . . . .

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Now, Mittermeier says, the end game may be at hand.

The Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959.

The airport majority on the Board of Supervisors may be in exile right now . . . and not even know it.

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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