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This process needs more public input

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

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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

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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

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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.

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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

security enhancements.

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

terminal.

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 will.rogers@latimes.com or willrogersemail@earthlink.net.


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