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El Toro Appeal to Be Filed Today

Airport: As park proponents rush to have petitions reinstated in time for March ballot, new plan surfaces to realign runways.

August 07, 2001|JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Supporters of an urban park instead of an airport at the former El Toro Marine base will appeal a judge's ruling today that voided petitions with 128,000 signatures aimed at putting a park initiative before the county's voters in March.

Meanwhile, people who want an El Toro airport but with different runway alignments on Monday presented their proposed initiative language to county officials for review.

A week ago, Superior Court Judge James Gray threw out a ballot title and summary prepared by the county counsel's office for the proposed Orange County Central Park and Nature Preserve Initiative. The wording was misleading, the judge ruled, because it didn't tell voters that development could occur within the proposed park.

If unchallenged, Gray's ruling could demolish hopes by airport foes to meet a Sept. 18 deadline to place the measure on the March 2002 ballot.

County supervisors are scheduled to approve the final El Toro airport project in late September. The Navy would review that plan and make a decision by June.

Supporters of a realigned airport face the same deadline for their proposed ballot measure. Villa Park City Councilman Robert E. McGowan said his group is offering a third alternative to the county's plan and to the park initiative developed by Irvine.

To qualify for the ballot, both measures need verified signatures from 71,206 registered Orange County voters.

The process of appealing Gray's ruling could extend beyond Sept. 18. The appeal will be filed with the Fourth District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana, which this year recused itself from hearing a previous El Toro-related case. In that appeal, San Diego appellate judges will decide whether to overturn a December ruling by a Los Angeles County judge declaring last year's anti-airport effort unconstitutional.

Airport opponent Len Kranser said his group will ask the court to order a special election if the issue isn't resolved by the March ballot. To force a special election on an initiative, twice as many signatures--142,412--are needed.

"We're nearly there," Kranser said.

The new proposal to realign proposed runways, dubbed the Reasonable Airport Alternative, is starting late to collect signatures. Without enough money for paid circulators, the group is relying on volunteers. If proponents don't qualify for the March ballot, they will try for November's, McGowan said.

Meanwhile, airport foes on Monday also questioned whether Judge Gray should have disclosed that he once considered hiring a political consulting firm co-owned by pro-airport consultant and campaign architect David Ellis.

Ellis and his former partner, Scott Hart, said Gray met with Hart to discuss hiring the firm in 1998. The judge ultimately chose a different firm to manage his unsuccessful Republican congressional bid. A review of Gray's 1998 campaign reports show no payments to Ellis or Hart.

Gray did receive a $250 contribution for his race from developer George Argyros, the airport's leading benefactor. State law allows contributions to judges of up to $250.

The canon of judicial ethics states that judges in trial proceedings "shall disclose on the record information that the judge believes the parties or their lawyers might consider relevant to the question of disqualification, even if the judge believes there is no actual basis for disqualification."

Gray at first declined to comment because technically the case is still before him. But when told the allegations involved his possible relationship with Ellis, Gray said, "Who's that?"

Robert Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University School of Law, said judges have discretion to disclose relationships if they believe those relationships might raise an appearance of impropriety later.

"The better course is always to recuse yourself," Pugsley said. "These questions always put a certain cloud over the integrity of the decision."

Attorney Rob Thornton, representing park proponents, said Gray's possible relationship won't be raised as an issue in the appeal. He said he'll ask the court to vacate Gray's order on several grounds, including using an incorrect legal standard to determine the adequacy of the ballot title and summary.

Thornton said the county's general plan already includes wording that allows development to occur in certain open-space areas. The initiative, he said, calls for such uses as museums, housing for universities and "park-compatible" uses, as well as adding language to keep the open-space zones from being developed in other ways.

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