LONG BEACH — City Auditor Robert Fronke, responding to a series of angry remarks by City Council members, leaned forward in his chair and cracked: "I feel a little bit like Ollie North."
The issue Tuesday was not in the same league as the Iran- contra scandal. But, on the local level, it was just as volatile: the Long Beach Airport.
Council members angrily chastised Fronke for what they perceived as criticism of how they are working to limit flights at the airport.
Fronke told The Times two weeks ago that the council should lead an effort to build a regional airport elsewhere because, in the long run, lawsuits trying to limit flights at the existing airport will be unsuccessful.
Council members called Fronke's comments inappropriate, and Councilman Edd Tuttle suggested that Fronke consult with them before speaking publicly about issues of a "sensitive nature,"--particularly when litigation is involved, as with the airport.
"I think Mr. Fronke has a role in this city as an auditor, but we set policy," Councilman Tom Clark said.
Councilman Ray Grabinski also scolded Fronke. He said the auditor is not privy to everything the council is doing to limit flights, as many things are discussed in closed-door meetings with the city attorney.
Contending that a city noise-control ordinance arbitrarily limited flights, the airlines since 1983 have won a series of court battles, allowing flights to increase from 15 to 26 a day.
"I would appreciate getting those comments personally rather than getting them from the newspaper," Grabinski said. "I don't think you know how much we've done."
A member of the audience, Bud Huber, drew applause when he, in turn, chastised the council: "You are trying to censor the city auditor. . . . I was getting outraged listening to the attack on Mr. Fronke."
Fronke, an independently elected city official who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor, defended his position. He told the council that he was not challenging it, but rather saying the city needs to consider options besides court battles to limit airport flights.
In an interview afterward, Fronke said he did not feel that the council wanted to censor his comments, only that it was making him aware there may be additional information. He said he hopes the council will follow a suggestion by Councilman Warren Harwood to include Fronke in some airport discussions. Fronke said he was not trying to usurp the council's policy-setting role and did not expect to change his mode of operating.
Fronke made the comments that irked council members after releasing his annual operations audit of the airport. He said the council "has not been realistic in assuming that activity at the municipal airport could be controlled by the use of legal maneuvering . . . considering the continuous pressure for more air traffic in the Los Angeles basin."
On Tuesday, Fronke repeated his statement that city officials should be working to find a new airport. Otherwise, he said, "we're going to lose the war."
Council members repeatedly asked Fronke where he expects to find a site for a new airport. After the meeting, Fronke said a regional airport might be located in undeveloped land halfway between Long Beach and San Diego. Other major cities such as Dallas, Seattle and Kansas City have found locations for airports that are some distance from the urban areas, he said.
"Regardless of their perception," Fronke said, "my perception, after talking to people in other communities, is that they do not perceive Long Beach as taking a leadership role" in pursuing a site for another airport.