Olive Avenue Confidential: Getting to the hub of the matter

Unless you've been following the issue closely and for quite some time, chances are that last week's City Council hearing about a proposed ground transport center at Bob Hope Airport was a bit of a head-scratcher.

It would be convenient enough just to say that council members voted 4 to 1 to let the airport build itself a hub for rental car, bus and train customers at Empire Avenue and Hollywood Way.

But between the lines, the real topic of conversation at City Hall was the prospect of airport expansion, about which the public can presume some things, but knows very little for certain.

We know that the Federal Aviation Administration is pressuring the airport to build a modernized terminal farther from the existing runway, but a 2005 development agreement between the airport and the city prohibits terminal construction and increased flight traffic through 2015, though negotiations should already be underway by 2012.

We also know that city and airport officials, meanwhile, support placing a high-speed-rail station adjacent to the airport at San Fernando Boulevard and Hollywood Way.

We can presume that airport officials wouldn't invest $120 million in a transit center they'd later regret if a high-speed-rail station and brand-new flight terminal come to pass.

All of this builds to two very important questions: What exactly is the airport authority's vision of the future, and how do city officials plan to respond?

Councilman David Gordon — who more often than not finds himself the lone voice of opposition to council decisions, as he was once again in the transit center vote — has for several weeks been pushing for public release of a still-secret City Council memo about current airport affairs, a document he suggests could clarify the situation, at least from the city's side of things.

It appears everyone else at City Hall, naturally, disagrees with Gordon.

The airport memo saga started in July, when council members sought and received legal advice from consulting attorney Peter Kirsch, a national expert on airport law who helped shape the current agreement.

Whatever Kirsch wrote, Gordon hoped to share with the rest of town, but legal advice is protected from public release by attorney-client privilege, and the council was in no hurry to waive that right.

So Gordon pushed for Kirsch to prepare an advice-redacted, just-the-facts version of his memo, which Kirsch confirmed he did and City Atty. Dennis Barlow confirmed he received.

Only Barlow didn't think that version should go public either. He and some council members argued that any purely factual information is already a matter of public record, and that even the advice-redacted version of the letter still involved sensitive issues regarding potential litigation.

"Even if you go through and try to take out confidential [legal advice]," Barlow said, "sometimes things could still contain inklings of where the council would go."

And so back into closed session they went — twice, and under the nondescript banner of discussing "anticipated litigation" — finally deciding before last Tuesday's hearing not to release the document.

The big question now is what kind of potential litigation is City Hall anticipating, exactly?

Though appearing convoluted or a bit off topic at times, Gordon's talking points on the transit hub ostensibly alleged that the airport is moving toward expansion one seemingly isolated project at a time.

City and airport officials reject Gordon's notion and say old days of bitter contention have given way to constructive dialogue. But, for what it's worth, from his window seat Gordon sees turbulence ahead.

JOE PIASECKI is an Annenberg Fellow with USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and a contributing editor for the Pasadena Weekly. He can be reached at piasecki@usc.edu.

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