The state law that created the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority says nothing about hiring a small army of pollsters, political consultants, and public relations people to sell voters on moving the airport. That, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, would be wrong. Such expenditures, call a "gift of public funds," would be nothing short of illegal.
The law does require the airport authority, which took over ownership and operation of Lindbergh Field from the port district on January 1, 2003, to "review all options of alternative sites, including, but not limited to, expansion of the existing airport site" and to submit its recommendation to the voters by November 7, 2006. The authority may educate voters about their choices in the matter, but not overtly campaign for the project.
But some local political consultants and others, critical of the way the airport authority has been doling out is contracts, say that's exactly what's being quietly engineered these days at the agency's well-furnished headquarters upstairs from the commuter terminal at Lindbergh Field.
According to records obtained from the airport authority under the California Public Records Act, contracts totaling at least $4.2 million have been signed with public relations consultants, lobbyists, and pollsters. Though the agency disputes it, the critics contend that much of that public money is being poured into a hardball, take-no-prisoners campaign plan to combat stiff resistance among the citizenry to the controversial notion of moving Lindbergh Field. The plan, they say includes keeping tabs on citizens who oppose the agency's political agenda and working with those who favor it.
The authority insists that its campaign plan is simply to "educate and inform" voters. But many of the consultants boast long records of fighting community opposition to development projects. They also advertise their long-standing contacts with local reporters and editorial writers -- known in the campaign business as "free media"-- who are at times wined and dined with funds provided by project sponsors. Sometimes, according to their airport authority contracts, the largely under-the-radar consultants even write the stories and editorials themselves.
Critics argue that such activity goes far beyond informing and educating the public and that spending the taxpayers' money to gather intelligence about the authority's political foes may even violate state privacy laws.
"The airport authority is charged by law with making a recommendation on a site for a new regional airport," says Bruce Henderson, "but only after an exhaustive review. These contracts suggest the members of the authority have already reached their decision well before the end of that process." Henderson, an attorney, has been monitoring the authority with former San Diego county supervisor Lou Conde, perhaps the authority's severest public critic.
"For example," continues Henderson, "the authority appears to have already excluded upgrades to Lindbergh Field. When did they do that, and were key decisions made without public hearings? Already the authority is entering into contracts with political consultants to push conclusions -- not educators to assist the public in participating in the process and to assist the public in ultimately, at the ballot box, making an informed decision. If the public was excluded from meetings in which key decisions were made narrowing down possible sites, that would be a violation of the Brown Act."
A violation of the Brown Act is one concern; an illegal political campaign is another. If a public agency were to spend public money on a political campaign, those expenditures would represent a gift of public funds to the private interests organizing the campaign.
"Already, the PR campaign that has been conducted seems to have crossed the line to political advocacy," Henderson says. "But the authority was not created to advocate; it was created to educate and to recommend a possible solution -- but only if there is a true problem, that is, a true need for a new airport. If the board members broke the law, it may be a matter for the grand jury to look into."
An example of the authority's public relations strategy was on display last Thursday. At a news conference, the authority announced the results of a $35,000 poll of 1600 San Diego County registered voters. After declaring that the airport authority's site-selection process was "transparent" and "educational" in nature, CEO Thella Bowens proudly pointed to the poll's key finding: that public support for building a new airport jumped from 42 to 49 percent after the authority distributed more than a million glossy newspaper inserts headlined "Fly into the Future." According to the poll, opposition to a new airport fell from 35 to 27 percent after the brochures hit.
"The more people are given good valid data, the better decisions they are able to make," Bowens concluded. Pollster Skip Hull, of CIC Research, Inc., added that the survey was important in finding out whether the agency's efforts were "effective with voters...in terms of swaying their opinions and making them understand the need for a new airport."
One of the airport authority's highest-paid consultants is GCS-PR, LLC, a San Diego-based public relations and political consulting outfit deeply rooted in county politics and real-estate-development advocacy campaigns.
GCS is run by Tom Gable, a former financial editor with the now-defunct San Diego Evening Tribune. Gable left the paper in the 1970s to go into the public relations business. Twenty-five years later, in 2001, he shut down his company, the Gable Group, saying that the burst of the dot-com bubble had done him in. Along with two former Gable Group executives, Rick Cook and Jon Schmid, Gable then set up GCS. According to its website, one of the firm's specialties is countering public opposition to big development projects.
"The North County Transit District...found itself facing last-minute opposition to the construction of two critical stations on the route," says one "case study" on the GCS website. "Aggressive media relations immediately balanced what had been a negative story, and contact with editorial boards took the battle to the opinion pages."
In another case, involving a mammoth residential subdivision in North City, "Tom Gable, who had led complex programs for Pardee on previous land use issues, was retained to assist in the passage of a controversial development in San Diego called Pacific Highlands Ranch....