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El Toro Airport Planners Near Runway's End

Government: Board takes steps to transfer the agency to the county executive office, where it could be dissolved.

April 22, 2002|DAVID REYES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

By pretty much every measure but officially, Orange County's high-flying El Toro airport planning machine is dead.

Voters scrapped plans for an airport at the closed Marine base on March 5. And with last week's Board of Supervisors vote, the El Toro Local Redevelopment Authority, which one critic called a "rogue agency," was unceremoniously dumped into a wing of county government.

Supervisors will continue to serve as the authority's board. But county officials are "studying staffing needs" for the authority's workload and are preparing a report on the agency's transfer to the control of the county executive office, which is scheduled to be presented at Tuesday's board meeting.

"It's still preliminary," said Candy Haggard, a manager in the county executive office, who declined to elaborate on the report.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Tuesday is also the day the Navy is expected to announce its decision on how it will dispose of the former base now that the airport plan is dead. Among its options is to grant Irvine's request to annex the property, which received supervisors' approval last week.

Once the darling of the board's three pro-airport supervisors, the authority was formed nearly two years ago to convert the 4,700-acre base property into an airport capable of handling 28 million passengers a year.

Now, until the Navy announces its decision, the property's fate and that of the agency's 29 employees are in limbo.

Even Supervisor Chuck Smith, a staunch airport advocate, favors moving oversight of the agency away from the board.

"If we're not going to build an airport, it doesn't make sense to keep [the agency] as a separate entity," Smith said.

Once under the wing of the county executive office the agency could be dissolved. If so, 23 of its 29 employees will probably return to the departments they were initially borrowed from, Haggard said.

Of the remaining workers, at least three are contract employees: Mark Mispagel, special counsel for El Toro; consultant Bob Peterson; and Gary Simon, the authority's, $182,000-a-year executive director.

Simon has alleged that the board violated his contract when it voted 3 to 2 to transfer the agency, making him report to county CEO Michael Schumacher instead of directly to the board.

During a closed session that Simon called to discuss his job performance last week, Simon reportedly told supervisors about the breach, as he saw it. Anti-airport Supervisor Todd Spitzer told Simon: "Gary, don't take it personally."

"[But] it is," Simon said.

In that meeting, the board took no stand on Simon's performance.

No issue has fueled such intense debate in the county as the airport plan. Simon's agency was viewed either as a welcome planning addition or the mechanism for destroying south county's quality of life.

"The authority's employees were not the architects of the airport, they were the foot solders. And, unfortunately, the foot soldiers take the worst of the battle," said Meg Waters, a spokeswoman for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a coalition of south county cities that fought airport plans.

Paul Eckles, the coalition's executive director, was more harsh, saying the county agency bent rules and became a "rogue agency."

The anti-airport coalition sued the county several times over the county agency's efforts, ultimately costing the county nearly $1 million in attorney fees. The cases involved getting public documents on airport planning that the county agency wanted to withhold, and an injunction issued in January that ordered the county to stop using public funds to promote an airport at El Toro.

But the county agency has its defenders. Bruce Nestande, spokesman for the Airport Working Group, which favors an airport, said the agency and its employees were only carrying out their duties as directed by the county and the voters, who approved an airport for the base in 1994. A later voter-approved anti-airport initiative, Measure F, was declared unconstitutional, leaving the original airport vote the "law of the land," Nestande said.

(Voters' most recent say, approving Measure W on March 5, rezoned the property to preclude an airport.)

Measure F, Nestande said, had "clearly spelled out that unless there was a fatal flaw, that reuse of the base should be civilian aviation," he said. "The [agency's] employees were hard workers."

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