AS IF YOU ASKED
Remember when Burbank’s City Council rolled out its “Airport Outreach
Plan” in June, then the latest incarnation of efforts to build
community consensus on airport issues? A star feature was the
council’s pledge to slash the number of confidential talks it was
having, instead bringing more talks into the open.
That pledge was almost immediately forgotten, to the point that
this weekend the council had an unusual Saturday session to talk in
private about setting a policy course for the future, an issue that
begs for public input and comment.
The weekend session did more than flout the spirit of openness
promised last year. It required a medal-winning effort in verbal
gymnastics to try claiming the discussion was legitimately held
outside the public view, new AOP policy or not.
Public officials have a reasonable and legal need to hold certain
talks in private, and discussing the various lawsuits springing from
city opposition to airport expansion has been the rationale for many
such meetings over the years. But with the vast majority of the
lawsuits having ended in the city’s favor, the council and its
lawyers developed a pattern of premising confidential meetings on the
potential a chat might reveal a weakness in some previous settlement,
or somehow fuel an opponent’s appeal. Sometimes the concern was that
the talk could conceivably affect various state and city application
processes the airport was involved in.
Last year, most council members came to a point they were willing
to admit that, if the word “airport” was likely to be mentioned in a
council discussion, somewhere in the process it was almost
automatically scheduled as a confidential session. This happened even
when the link was based mostly on an outlandish series of “what ifs.”
That was supposed to have changed in June. Through no fault of its
own, the city was tripped up soon after announcing its new policy.
Just weeks later, airport officials voted not to wait for required
city permits before starting major construction projects related to
That confrontation reignited the potential for more litigation.
Council talks about how the city would respond to the immediate
problem, and ultimately process requests for permits, were legitimate
subjects for closed sessions. But from there the council slipped back
into the old routine like pulling on a pair of comfortable slippers.
Closed sessions supposedly related to existing or potential
airport litigation again became routine. There was even debate behind
the scenes as to whether a closed session on airport issues should be
listed for every meeting. If there was nothing to talk about, the
council could skip it. But if Peter Kirsch, the lawyer Burbank has
hired to handle airport matters, came up with something he wanted to
discuss urgently, the mechanism would already be in place to do so.
In fact, Kirsch’s theories, plans, proposals and observations far
outside the legal process have been at the center of many closed
sessions, just as almost countless memos from him have covered the
same territory, but were deemed “confidential.” But for many of the
talks and memos, the supposed connection to ongoing or potential
litigation has been tenuous, at best.
As an example, when council members met to talk about what they
hoped to accomplish when two of their own went to meet with federal
officials in Washington, D.C., Kirsch had many points to make, from
his assessment of the current climate among aviation officials to his
theories on what officials making the same trip on behalf of other
public agencies might be up to. Because one can perhaps imagine that
some day one agency will sue the other is as clear as the
justification gets for having held that discussion in private.
At its core, the subject of this weekend’s discussion was how the
city intends to respond to developments during that recent summit
trip. The FAA administrator told the players she wants them to
develop a plan within 60 days. Failing that, the airport must repay
the millions in federal cash it was given to buy land for a new
This weekend’s discussion focused on the three schools of thought
on the next step.
One alternative has city and airport officials rushing to develop
a new terminal plan everyone can agree upon, one that can’t include
guarantees for a curfew on night flights, or caps on noise or
flights. Let’s be polite and just say that isn’t likely.
A second path has the city and the airport agreeing on a plan to
develop the land purchased for a new terminal. In the backward talk
of lawyers and city officials, this would have the city agreeing to a
request made by the airport, but a request the airport hasn’t
actually made or mentioned to date. The council has been considering
suggesting what the airport might want to ask for. Got that?
This course would see the land converted into revenue-producing
property until that day years or decades in the future when there’s
mutual agreement on specifics of a new terminal. Some believe that
would meet the FAA’s immediate demands, reserve the site most agree
is the best location for a new terminal, and allow the city to keep
the leverage it has won over terminal development.
The third alternative is for everyone to walk away, and for
Burbank to let the airport decide whether and how it will satisfy the
FAA. In this scenario, if the airport ever again expresses interest
in building a new terminal, the city will decide then what to do
about it. In the meantime, we stop paying lawyers to tell the council
in secret what they think a variety of federal officials really mean,
want and will do.
There could certainly be legal ramifications if the council went
down the road of encouraging airport officials to build compatible
businesses as place-holders on the land. The city won sweeping rights
over deciding what can be done there, and any agreement would have to
be crafted to preserve or enhance those rights. But that’s a
discussion that comes AFTER choosing one of the alternatives.
According to several elected and other high-ranking officials in
City Hall, a council majority decided to more fully explore the
development proposal (that hasn’t been proposed). They also agreed it
might be time to bring the discussion into the light. As of this
writing, the council’s plan was to announce the substance of
Saturday’s meeting at last night’s regular council meeting. From
there, we’d all be allowed to look in as the council discusses
implementing the second alternative.
Unfortunately, that brings us in to process just a couple of
meetings too late.
* WILL ROGERS’ column appears in every edition of the Leader. He
can be reached 24 hours a day at 637-3200, voice mail ext. 906, or by
e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.