Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Airport's closed meeting doesn't fly

LONG BEACH: City Council won't explore proposals about airfield in private discussion.
By Paul Eakins, Staff Writer
Posted: 01/06/2009 10:26:37 PM PST

LONG BEACH - A City Council discussion on leasing or possibly selling the Long Beach Airport will be heard in open session, not in closed session as had been planned Tuesday. Pressured by community advocates, the council voted unanimously Tuesday to publicly discuss the matter that City Manager Pat West has said called "leasing opportunities" that have been presented to the city by several large finance companies.

Mayor Bob Foster tried to allay concerns before the council voted to hold the open session at a future meeting. A date to discuss the airport has not yet been set. "There is no deal, there is no offer, there is no proposal, there is not anything on selling or leasing the airport," Foster said. "There are a lot of questions. It may or may not be a good idea. I have my own doubts, I have a lot of questions about it, and this is only to talk about some things as we do with all real estate transactions because you have prices involved and economic data involved that you would not want to be public to give someone an upper hand in negotiations."

Community advocates pointed to the lack of an actual deal being on the table as the reason the matter shouldn't be heard in closed session. "City management can't simply attach a real property address to some agenda item to keep a policy discussion secret," local blogger Bill Pearl told the council. "That's a pretext to evade the openness of the Brown Act."

Community advocate Jack Smith said: "Policymaking needs to be done in public meetings." Councilwoman Rae Gabelich compared discussing the airport's future in private to the process that had brought in JetBlue as the airport's major airline. "There was a time when it was a fight, when they wanted to create the line of operation outside of what our noise ordinance was allowing," Gabelich said.

"The turmoil and the division that happened because of the way that JetBlue's contract was negotiated, the way it was brought out to the community after it was all sealed behind closed doors, is something that I would not want to see happen in this city again." Councilwoman Gerrie Schipske had first publicly voiced concern about the closed session and opposed any sale of the airport in a statement Friday. About 30 percent of the airport is leased by airlines, aircraft storage companies, rental car companies, restaurants and other businesses, West has said. The remaining runways and other facilities aren't leased, he said.

If investors were interested in buying the airport, it could be done through the Federal Aviation Administration's Airport Privatization Pilot Program. Several cities have shown an interest in that program, submitting applications in recent years. However, most were withdrawn or rejected. Only Chicago's application to privatize Chicago Midway International Airport remains, leaving four slots available only for non-large hub and general aviation airports such as Long Beach's.

The council decided to postpone the open session Tuesday to discuss the airport proposals on the advice of City Attorney Robert Shannon. He said some members of the public who would be interested in the matter may not have gone to the meeting, knowing that they wouldn't be able to listen in on the closed session. The council could have legally discussed the matter Tuesday, but Shannon said he wasn't sure "that it's consistent with the spirit of the law."

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