Orange County's "Just the Facts" program promoting a new airport at El Toro was suspended Friday by a San Diego County judge.
The ruling by Superior Court Judge Charles R. Hayes comes three months before a critical March vote that could replace an airfield at the former Marine base with a large urban park.
The pro-airport majority on the Board of Supervisors had authorized about $6 million this fiscal year for an El Toro public information campaign. About half of that has been spent, El Toro program manager Gary Simon said Friday.
"Quite clearly, we fully intend to comply with the court's order," Simon said.
But the county cannot stop a final postcard already in the mail to county residents, he said; it was distributed through the county's partnership with the Orange County Regional Airport Authority. The county had been distributing one newsletter a month, with the authority also sending periodic mailings.
"I would call it an $8-million present for the citizens of Orange County," said attorney Richard Jacobs, who represents the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, an anti-airport coalition of cities that sued the county over its airport outreach. He was referring to spending authorized over the last 18 months for the program.
Hayes issued a tentative decision earlier this month ordering the county not to advocate for either side on the upcoming initiative. But he didn't pull the plug on the county's Just the Facts program until Friday. He has not yet ruled on whether previous spending was illegal. During a court hearing Thursday, Jacobs argued that the county, by promoting an airport, was spending money to oppose the March measure.
State law forbids spending government funds to advocate for or against any ballot initiative or candidate.
Jacobs unfurled the county's latest mailer as proof. He said it contained four pages of airport information and one sentence about the fact that an environmental review had found that the airport plan would worsen traffic, noise and air pollution.
"The whole point behind this ruling is the recognition that government can't take sides on an initiative measure," Jacobs said. "The judge is saying let's level the playing field."
Hayes also ordered the county to neither promote nor discourage the use of El Toro as a commercial airport and to provide "open and evenhanded information devoting equal time and space to all issues, both pro and con" involving the airport.
County lawyers and El Toro planners were meeting Friday to discuss the reach of the ruling and whether it prevented two public-relations consultants from being paid for work already done.
Assistant County Counsel Don Rubin said officials believe the ruling bars payment of any invoices for work completed before Dec. 7, the date of Hayes' tentative ruling, until there is a trial on whether the spending so far has been proper.
Board Chairman Cynthia P. Coad said the county will comply with Hayes' ruling. She said, however, that she is worried about not being able to pay bills from the two consultants.