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Los Angeles City Elections 2013

Race for city controller lands at LAX

May 18, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine, shown in March 2012, faces Ron Galperin, an attorney in Century City, in the race for city controller.
Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine, shown in March 2012, faces Ron… (Los Angeles Times )

This post has been corrected, as explained below.

The Los Angeles city controller doesn't have any actual power over the modernization plans of Los Angeles World Airports or over whether a runway is moved at Los Angeles International Airport. Nevertheless, LAWA and the runway have become an issue in the race between candidates Dennis Zine, a termed-out city councilman, and Ron Galperin, a Century City attorney.

The City Council endorsed a $4.76-billion modernization plan for LAX last month that includes moving one of the runways and adding a taxiway on the north side to better accommodate the new generation of supersized jets. Zine, who represents District 3 in the western San Fernando Valley, was one of four council members who voted against the plan. He says he supports "modernization and regionalization" at the airports but not the runway project, which he said would cause gridlock around LAX and lead to an expansion that would encroach on neighboring Westchester.

Zine's stance infuriated members of the broad coalition of business and labor leaders that supports moving the runway, who had expected him to support the package. The Chamber of Commerce, which was also vexed by Zine's vote to award a single citywide contract for trash collection, called Zine and Galperin in for endorsement interviews not long after the council's airport modernization vote. Zine responded with an open letter to the chamber asking whether it was "seeking to punish me for doing what I believe was in the best interest for all of L.A."

ENDORSEMENTS: Los Angeles City Elections 2013

The chamber ultimately decided to stay out of the controller's race. But the neighborhood group that opposes moving the runway, the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion, has thrown its support behind Zine (and mayoral candidate Eric Garcetti, who also voted against the project). "Garcetti and Zine will prioritize expenditures and restore LAX to world-class status by emphasizing land-side terminal improvements and transportation access projects," the group declared in a newsletter May 7.

In truth, neither man would be able to singlehandedly change the modernization project even if elected next week. But the next controller will produce a new survey of the LAWA property, a once-every-five-years exercise that's due to be completed this fall. The survey will evaluate, among other things, LAWA's modernization plan and regionalization strategy. In other words, it's a chance to bring a fresh and independent eye to the debate.

Assuming, of course, that the controller hasn't already made up his mind on the project.

"By making this a campaign issue, Zine has given up his ability to be seen as a credible and independent auditor," Galperin asserted in an email Friday. "The controller is sworn to conduct independent audits without an appearance of bias or a predetermined outcome. I have neither taken an official position for or against the moving of the north runway so that my audit will be credible and persuasive."

In an interview Friday, Zine said his vote has "no impact whatsoever" on his ability to do the survey. He added: "Mr. Galperin has traditionally not committed on a number of issues. He wants to research.... He finds reasons not to take a position. I've taken a position that doesn't interfere with my ability to do what's required."

Zine isn't backing away from his position against the runway move or in favor of regionalization. The Ontario airport (which LAWA operates) is underutilized and "not maintained to the standard it should be," Zine argued, because the airport authority wants to keep flights coming into LAX. That's a recipe for gridlock, he said.

For his part, Galperin said he would make the survey the most comprehensive ever if he became controller. And though he gave a nod to the neighbors' concerns, he also noted the key role LAX plays in the local economy -- a point that the chamber and other supporters of the new runway emphasize.

"I am committed to making sure community input, with a strong focus on input from residents living near the airport, plays an important role in the audit's findings," Galperin said in an email. "I also intend to direct the auditors who conduct the survey to examine issues of safety, construction alternatives, traffic, financial and environmental impacts –- and more. Our airports (and particularly LAX) are a major economic engine for our city and our region, and Los Angeles needs and deserves a truly world-class airport. Our residents’ quality of life must also be respected and maintained -- and the taxpayers’ are entitled to know that their money is being well spent."

Zine's stance on the runway may drive more of his supporters to the polls, which could spell the difference in a low-turnout election. Recent polls have shown Zine in the lead with about half of the voters still undecided.

For the record, The Times has endorsed Galperin.

[For the Record, May 20, 9:25 a.m.: The original version of this post incorrectly said that the proposed modernization project at LAX included an additional runway. The project calls for an existing runway on the airport's north side to be moved 260 feet closer to the airport's northern boundary, making room for a new taxiway between the relocated runway and the other runway on that side of LAX.]

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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