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Burbank Studios Repudiate Vote on Airport Expansion

Business: Three movie giants back away from chamber position that contradicts the city's stance.

May 14, 1997|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BURBANK — Studio magnates have taken on the president, but when it came to the City Council recently, three of the mightiest went weak at the knees.

Like chastened children, Disney, NBC and Warner Bros. all took pains to repudiate a position taken by the Burbank Chamber of Commerce--of which all three are members--that ran counter to the city's stance on a proposed expansion of the Burbank Airport terminal.

"I was wrong . . . and I regret my action," wrote John E. O'Neill, an NBC vice president who had taken part in the vote declaring the chamber's position. "I apologize. I assure you it will not happen again."

The Walt Disney Co. followed suit with a letter stating that Disney didn't take part in the vote. And a Warner Bros. representative weighed in saying she was misled by the chamber.

Burbank city leaders say that the studios simply want to reiterate their neutrality on the heated airport issue. The studios "promised they were not going to take a position," said Councilman Ted McConkey.

But airport supporters say the brouhaha offers a glimpse of how entertainment giants with global reach must attend to hometown politics.

The flap "is a telltale sign of where the studios see their bread as being buttered," said Victor Gill, spokesman for the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority.

The authority and the city of Burbank are locked in a battle over the airport's plans to move the existing terminal to a new site and expand it from 14 to 19 gates with the potential to add eight more.

The city, concerned with aircraft noise, traffic and lower property taxes, has filed legal actions on several fronts seeking more control over the airport's growth, and is pushing a plan for a smaller, 16-gate terminal.

So city leaders didn't take kindly to the 900-member Burbank chamber's decision to issue a statement backing the 19-gate proposal. The statement, approved by a unanimous vote of 18 board members present, also urged the city to resume negotiations with the airport authority.

It was quickly seized on by the airport authority, which used the chamber's position in full-page newspaper ads: "The Burbank Chamber of Commerce gets it. Why can't the Burbank City Council get it?" the ads proclaimed.

Then-Mayor Bill Wiggins responded with a letter to the chamber accusing members of not meeting with council members before the vote.

McConkey afterward spoke to at least one studio representative, NBC's O'Neill. "I expressed my dissatisfaction, my disappointment. I didn't try to impose pressure on him or anything else. Who am I, a simple councilman, against NBC?" said McConkey.

Nonetheless, O'Neill, who took part in the chamber vote, wrote to the council to say he was appalled by the chamber's action.

David Nelson, senior development manager with Walt Disney Imagineering, wrote to clarify that he wasn't present. "I would have voted NO!" he wrote.

And on Monday, Warner Bros. followed suit with a letter from Mee H. Lee, a vice president, who also voted for the chamber's position.

"We learn through our mistakes and I certainly have through this one," Lee wrote, adding that she was "personally chagrined" by the chamber's action.

Burbank Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Paul Sago said the flap is "a tempest in a teapot."

He defended the chamber's action, which he said came after several months of studying the airport issue. Members talked to, among others, Wiggins, and even sought legal counsel before the final draft of the position paper was issued, he said.

"I am surprised and I am even hurt a bit by it," he said of the controversy.

Airport expansion supporters contend that the three studios are extra sensitive about their standing in Burbank City Hall because they are in the midst of major expansions in Burbank.

Pasadena mayor and Airport Commission member Chris Holden said the studios "are obviously in a delicate position because they are having other interactions with the council regarding their expansions."

The airport issue "has permeated throughout the internal politics of [Burbank] City Hall. The studios are just cautious. They are hedging their bets," he said.

But City Manager Bud Ovrom said the studios were simply ruffled because they hadn't expected the chamber's position to become quite so public.

There's no connection to the expansion plans, because, after all, master plans for expansions by NBC, Disney and Warner Bros. already have been approved, Ovrom said, adding:

"Number one, no studio has any kind of risk with their future," in Burbank. "And number two, if Disney wanted to build a 500,000-square-foot building here, do you think Burbank would say no?"

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