Outgoing County Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier, who for five years has led the effort for an airport at El Toro, expressed serious doubts Wednesday about whether the project will ever be built.
Mittermeier, in an interview a day after she stepped down from county government's top job, said a ballot measure approved by voters last March makes building a new airport "extremely difficult" because it requires a two-thirds vote of the public.
She expressed skepticism that the county could move forward unless Measure F is somehow modified or if public opinion shifts in favor of an airport.
"I won't say impossible, but right now you couldn't get a simple majority of voters to support an airport master plan for El Toro," she said.
Mittermeier negotiated an end to her contract this week after it became clear the majority of county supervisors wanted a new CEO. Two board members oppose an airport at El Toro, and two of the three airport proponents on the board disagreed with Mittermeier over handling of the El Toro issue.
Her pessimistic assessment, coming from an official intimately involved in all facets of the county's airport plan, underscores the challenges airport backers face.
Mittermeier said the two-thirds vote is one of many stumbling blocks that Measure F imposed on the planning process, making it tough to get an airport approved.
Measure F requires additional environmental impact reports and public hearings, leaving numerous new opportunities for court challenges by airport opponents, Mittermeier said.
"It would be just an endless loop, delay after delay, that could add years and years to the planning process," she said.
The Board of Supervisors had hoped to have commercial flights at an El Toro airport by 2005, but she believes "that's not doable now. I can't say how many years will be added, but it could be many, many years if something isn't done."
Mittermeier said she personally supports an international airport as the best reuse of the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. But she believes the only way the project will succeed is if proponents work together and manage to get the public to believe in it.
"Right now there's no passion behind it," she said. "Most people don't want to create problems for their neighbors. People in North County see that their neighbors [in South County] don't want it, so it's difficult for them to see down the road 40 years, that it's something this county really needs."
Formidable Obstacles for Airport Advocates
If airport advocates can't make a persuasive case for why an airport is important for Orange County's economic future, she said, they will be hard-pressed to overcome the strong, well-organized opposition from cities like Irvine.
Mittermeier also warned that airport supporters could have trouble continuing planning with the current 3-2 pro-El Toro majority on the Board of Supervisors.
"That's a very thin margin, and new elections could change that," she said.
Some proponents had blamed Mittermeier for not being a strong public advocate of an airport herself. But she counters that that's the job of elected officials, not the county executive officer.
During a wide-ranging interview at her attorney's Santa Ana office Wednesday, Mittermeier reflected on her five tumultuous years as executive officer.
Mittermeier said her more recent clashes with the Board of Supervisors contrasted sharply with her first year on the job, when she was considered a heroine for putting a plan in place to help extract the county from its $1.64-billion bankruptcy.
But she thought the bad times would be dealing with the bankruptcy, she said, not the airport issue.
Mittermeier said she sees her ouster as almost unavoidable considering that all but of one of the board members who appointed her have left office. In the wake of the bankruptcy, the Board of Supervisors wanted a strong, decisive leader who could make tough financial decisions.
But as the county emerged from bankruptcy and new supervisors took office, she said, the board began to take back some of the power it had given Mittermeier.
"As long as we were in trouble, they wanted someone strong in charge. But when things improve, they think that it's OK to relax the procedures," she said. "As long as you have an elected body capable of putting power in their own hands, it's inevitable for the board to go away from a central government."
Of the five board members who appointed her, only Jim Silva, who is pro-airport, remains. Though Silva has heaped praise on Mittermeier for her bankruptcy work, he also believes that the county needs a separate manager--answerable directly to the board--for the El Toro project.
Mittermeier said she fears the board may wind up with a weak chief executive who wants the job only because it has a good salary, or because that person is near the end of his or her career and sees this as a nice way to go out.