Makeover of San Diego Airport Authority Sought

State Sen. Christine Kehoe says the Legislature needs to consider restructuring the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, the agency that runs Lindbergh Field and that identified Miramar as the best potential new airport.

Kehoe, D-San Diego, said yesterday the authority's divisive decision to recommend Miramar Air Station and its other work on land-use issues suggested it was too far removed from the public it was created to serve.

"We need to figure out a better way to get the job done," Kehoe said in an interview.

She plans to call for hearings beginning next month to discuss legislation aimed at a more "efficient and effective" structure for the 4-year-old agency, possibly dismantling its policy-setting board.

"Some other governance structure might be more directly accessible to the people and be more representative of the region as a whole, and just do ... a more effective job of planning for a new airport," said Kehoe, who has served as a San Diego city councilwoman and state Assembly member.

Kehoe said she was keeping an open mind, but possibilities included eliminating the agency's nine-member board of directors and transferring its planning functions to some other body, such as the San Diego Association of Governments.

She said there also was a need to improve access to and from San Diego's airport, an issue the authority was ill-equipped to solve on its own.

Kehoe signaled her intentions in a letter to the board, dated last week and signed by four fellow senators and three Assembly members from the county. Her main partner on the issue is George Plescia, the Assembly GOP leader whose district includes Miramar.

Airport authority board members, some of whom only got word of the letter Wednesday, said any drastic changes would be a mistake.

"There is an old adage -- if it works, don't fix it," said Paul Peterson as the board convened yesterday for its first meeting in more than a month.

Board member Xema Jacobson said the public has benefited from having an independent agency devoted to the airport.

Kehoe said both hearings regarding the authority will be in San Diego. She hopes to schedule the first for October; the second likely after the Nov. 7 advisory ballot measure on Miramar, Proposition A.

"The hearings will culminate in recommendations for state legislation to be introduced in January 2007," her letter says.

Kehoe said she sympathized with the difficulties the agency faced in searching for a new airport site, but she faulted it for what she called a confusing ballot measure. The search ended with a 7-2 board vote calling for discussions with the military on the possible use of a portion of the base, despite steadfast military opposition.

"If the voters accept it," she said, "I'm not sure we know exactly what they've accepted."

Kehoe said the authority also mishandled its effort to update land-use documents to ensure that development around airports was compatible with the operations there. Its initial proposals, which use noise and safety criteria to guide jurisdictions in development plans, were attacked by "almost every city in the region and many private companies."

A large advisory committee is now reshaping the work.

Board member William D. Lynch said the most important part of the land-use compatibility project was the outcome.

"Take a look at the process we put together and talk to some of the people that have been involved in it," Lynch said. "They might just become pleased with the way we've handled that very difficult task."

In her letter, Kehoe said the authority "must work closely with regional transportation planners so that enhanced access to the airport is possible via transit options as well as local highways."

Those references in particular prompted some at the authority to speculate that Kehoe might be considering transferring some of functions to SANDAG, the regional planning and transportation agency. SANDAG already has taken over planning duties of the county's two public transit operations.

Kehoe said she also might want to look to the county Board of Supervisors or the city of San Diego for certain airport functions.

The Airport Authority was created in 2003 through legislation authored by then-state Sen. Steve Peace, so only the Legislature would be empowered to change its functions. The authority assumed control of Lindbergh Field from the San Diego Unified Port District.

It is run by a nine-member board of directors, three of whom -- Joseph W. Craver, Lynch and Jacobson -- are executive members with annual salaries of $150,696. All three will complete four-year terms at the end of 2006. The other six serve for stipends paid for each meeting they attend.

Regional elected officials appoint all but one board member; one of the executive seats is a gubernatorial appointee. Then-Gov. Gray Davis appointed Jacobson.

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