Ron Kaye: A community of scale

Discussing American Airlines pulling out of Bob Hope Airport, Executive Director Dan Feger told airport commissioners how, in a recent team-building exercise, senior staff had reviewed the book, “Who Moved My Cheese” — a story about two mice and two mouse-sized people caught in a maze together.

“It’s a very cute little book,” Feger said. “It talks about change and sometimes people don’t want to change, but if you make the change, the change actually yields a much better result. If you keep doing the same thing, stay on the same path and hope the world will change around you, it probably won’t happen.”

American’s departure could mean a loss of up to 7.5% of the airport’s passenger traffic and millions of dollars in revenue, forcing yet another re-design, yet another scaling back of costs, for the planned $100-million-plus intermodal transportation center and parking structure.

“The world has changed,” Feger said.

The Bob Hope Airport world has changed a lot over the last 20 years, but it took a bruising and costly political and legal war to bring it about — a war sparked by a grassroots movement that is a model for how ordinary citizens can stymie rich and powerful interests and change the political culture of their communities by fighting for what they believe in.

What had been a push for a massive expansion with a new 27-gate terminal — even talk of making it an international airport — has given way to a voluntary curfew by the airlines, the sound-proofing of nearby homes, an agreement with the city to put off the terminal issue until 2015, and the completion of a study that officials said justified a permanent curfew.

Expansion has given way to fixing traffic flow and parking problems around the airport, and to plans to connect Metrolink and the Orange Line Busway to the airport. The airport has tried to mend its relationship with City Hall and with the community through outreach. A survey of residents is now under way to help guide future decisions.

“What you’ve seen over time is that it finally dawned on the airport that it really is the Burbank community that will make those decisions, the community who is in control of whether or not they will get a new terminal,” said long-time Burbank City Councilman Dave Golonski, who played a key role over the last 18 years in helping to bring about the changes.

“Once they realized that, I think they really made a good-faith effort to mitigate the traffic and other problems, to get the curfew. They have become much more cooperative and tried to understand what the impacts are on Burbank, which is a long way from where it once was.”

Golonski’s journey from ordinary citizen to city leader started, as it does for so many, with a problem in his neighborhood — a row of houses behind his house became abandoned, graffiti-covered eyesores after a developer bought them to tear down and build in their place a large three-story apartment complex.

He organized “Enough is Enough” to fight the project and got his neighbors to string their Christmas lights in April to get visibility for their protest — efforts which got the project killed.

Emboldened, he championed a tough “smart growth” ballot initiative to cap the number of housing units and commercial space that could be built one year.

“It was the most highly outspent ballot initiative in the history of California,” he recalled, making its defeat inevitable.

What he was learning about City Hall disturbed him so much that he ran for the City Council, losing in his first try, but winning election in 1993

Two years later, the late Ted McConkey, a leader in the anti-noise, anti-expansion movement and a retired aerospace worker, joined Golonski for one term and helped keep the airport a hot topic for what was a bumpy ride, with council members often at odds with each other. The city was also in conflict with the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority and its partner cities.

In 2000, voters approved Measure B, drafted by Golonski, which barred the Burbank City Council from taking any discretionary steps to help the airport expand without going back to voters. A much more stringent measure backed by McConkey won approval a year later, but was thrown out by state courts.

As he looks back at the last quarter century, Golonski believes change has been possible in Burbank because of its size and “people’s pride in the city.”

“This is a community of a scale where if you see something that’s way out of kilter, you don’t have to be tremendously wealthy to take that message to the people. The expectations of the community are more easily expressed in a city like Burbank.”

RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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