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L.A.'s Chief of Airports Is Ousted

Transportation: Commission president to step down in wake of controversy over proposed expansion.

May 09, 1998|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After months of mounting dissatisfaction with the campaign to expand Los Angeles International Airport, Mayor Richard Riordan has removed Dan Garcia as the president of the city's Airport Commission, although the attorney and business executive will serve as a mayoral advisor.

Garcia, a longtime local political insider, has been Riordan's designated leader of the expansion effort, which has lately become mired in controversy. It also has stirred unhappiness within the Riordan administration, where officials have complained about not getting their money's worth from a host of consultants hired to advise airport leaders on the proposed expansion.

Despite spending millions of dollars on community and public relations, there is little evidence that the expansion proposal has won over skeptics.

Meanwhile, Councilwoman Ruth Galanter--who complains of the environmental, traffic and other effects of expanding the facility and instead favors development of the Palmdale airport--has steadily built a strong local coalition opposing the administration's plans. That has deepened anxiety within the Riordan team as it tries to sell a plan that it argues is essential to the city's economic future.

On Friday, however, Riordan effusively praised Garcia.

"Dan Garcia has done a job nobody else could do in developing the master plan for LAX," the mayor said between stops on Capitol Hill, where he has spent much of the week lobbying for federal help on transportation, immigration, public safety and other issues. "He's one of the most brilliant and dedicated people I've ever known."

Garcia did not return repeated calls seeking comment. His move from the commission to his new status as advisor will become official as soon as he submits a formal letter of resignation, according to one Riordan aide.

Riordan did not speak to Garcia regarding his removal, aides said. Rather, the job of negotiating his move from unpaid commissioner to unpaid advisor fell to Robin Kramer, the mayor's chief of staff. Kramer too was unavailable for comment Friday.

Although neither Riordan nor Kramer publicly expressed any unhappiness with the commission president's leadership, other sources familiar with the discussions said Riordan thought that as the expansion plan moves from development to implementation--a shift the mayor's office hopes will come about later this year--it will need a new type of leader.

The administration recently has shuffled a number of players at the airport. Last month, after The Times reported growing unhappiness with large consulting contracts handed out to companies for overseeing public relations at the airport, Riordan administration officials demanded that one of those consultants, Edelman Worldwide, be dropped from the project.

Airport General Manager Jack Driscoll met with Edelman officials and said afterward through a spokeswoman that the airport and the company had reached a mutual understanding. Driscoll would not elaborate.

A few days later, Riordan aides confirmed that the mayor's staff was negotiating to bring on Barbara Johnson, a respected lawyer and longtime political insider, to act as a consultant to the administration on airport issues.

Critics faulted that move, noting that Johnson is a friend of Riordan confidant William Wardlaw. Riordan aides defended it by saying that she is a talented and trusted lawyer whose insights could help the mayor get a surer grip on the airport expansion effort.

Garcia also came under fire in the debate over Johnson's appointment. Asked whether he felt pressure to hire Johnson as a consultant, Garcia responded that he wasn't sure how to answer, a vague response that angered Wardlaw and others close to the mayor. Some Riordan aides also believed that Garcia was responsible for drawing public attention to the contention over Johnson.

And at the same time, Riordan publicly touted his friend and former NBC executive John Agoglia as someone he believed could help take control of the airport expansion--a job that Garcia was supposedly already doing. Riordan's decision to publicly float Agoglia's name irritated Garcia, sources said.

The proposed airport expansion would nearly double its capacity to about 100 million passengers a year. It would add 4 million square feet of cargo space, and is estimated to cost $8 billion to $12 billion, a tab that would make it one of the most expensive public works projects in the country.

Led by Riordan, proponents cite the jobs and economic benefit that would flow from an enlarged airport. But critics of the plan are bothered by its cost, its potential effect on the communities closest to the airport and its possibility for increased noise, traffic and pollution. Just this week, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) expressed grave reservations about the expansion plans during a heated meeting with Riordan.

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