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LAX Expansion Publicists Are Catching Flak

April 19, 1998|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles International Airport officials, determined to press for a massive expansion despite community resistance, are spending millions of dollars on public relations and community outreach, even though their costly growth plan has never received city approval.

Critics of the expansion, including City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, say that the money has been misspent and that the airport should not be drumming up community support for an expansion that has yet to be approved--either by the Airport Commission or the City Council.

Proponents of an enlarged airport, meanwhile, argue that they too are troubled by the expenditures but mainly because they are worried that the city is not getting good results for its money.

According to city records, four firms have been hired by the Airport Commission to handle community relations, government relations and public relations. Together, they are expected to receive about $5 million for their work on the expansion effort, known as the airport master plan.

One company, Consensus Planning Group, is scheduled to be paid $2.2 million to handle community outreach. Two firms, Emerson and Associates and Planning Company Associates, are handling intergovernmental communications for a total of nearly $1.4 million. The fourth firm, Edelman Worldwide, is being paid $1.4 million to handle public relations.

They are just four of more than two dozen consultants working on the expansion effort. The remainder are performing more technical tasks such as urban design, environmental analysis and transportation planning. All told, the airport expects to spend nearly $40 million on consultants.

And yet, as city officials privately acknowledge, the outreach expenditures have yielded few tangible results. In fact, residents of the communities surrounding the airport seem more determined than ever to resist the proposed $8-billion to $12-billion expansion, which would nearly double the airport's annual passenger traffic and add millions of square feet to its cargo capacity.

As a result, sources close to Mayor Richard Riordan say the administration has grown increasingly worried that the mayor will be held responsible for what appears to be a floundering expansion effort.

"Let's face it," said one person close to the mayor. "We've spent all this money, and we're further behind than when we started."

Robin Kramer, Riordan's chief of staff, agreed that the mayor's office was disappointed by the efforts of the consultants.

"Having open communication about the need to increase the capacity of the airport is an important piece of the master plan process," she said. "In our view, this important piece has been lackluster."

Asked how serious the problems were, Kramer responded: "There's a huge need for improvement."

Jack Driscoll, general manager of the airport, conceded that the consultants have come under criticism, but defended their overall work.

"There's some dissatisfaction," he said. "But I'm not that unhappy. . . . I think we need to get better information into the community, and we're working on that."

Although Riordan is a longtime supporter of the airport's expansion, he had largely delegated responsibility to the airport staff and commission until recently. In the past few months, however, the mayor has taken a noticeably more active interest, working with his advisors on a plan to regain control of the issue.

Although Riordan was not available for comment, others close to the mayor said his heightened activity reflects several realizations. In part, the mayor's recent trip to Asia drove home the importance of airport expansion, and the reports of consultant expenditures have troubled him, sources said.

Dan Garcia, president of the Airport Commission and the person responsible for overseeing the expansion effort, was out of the country and unavailable for comment.

Some of the consultants defended their work and noted that they are trapped between critics who say that they are not doing enough and those who worry that they are doing too much.

"We do not want to be out there, beyond giving what information needs to be available to have a reasoned debate," said John Stodder, senior vice president at Edelman Worldwide, which is handling public relations for the project.

Nevertheless, some critics are bothered by the money being spent.

Galanter, the leader of the expansion opponents, complained that the money going to public relations and community outreach is in effect a city expenditure to lobby for a proposal that has not received city approval.

The effort is so blatant, she said, that one of the consultants has a person attend Galanter's speeches to monitor her remarks. The councilwoman has taken to introducing the consultant, a representative of Consensus Planning, as "her shadow."

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