2014: A historic election in Santa Monica

Going back in history, there have been some big elections in Santa Monica, elections that made Santa Monica what it is.

In 1916 Santa Monica voters approved a water bond to create a municipal water system. In 1917 they voted down annexation by Los Angeles. In the ’20s Santa Monica passed another bond issue to acquire the Charnock wells in West L.A. and, armed with their own water, voters again defeated annexation. In 1939 voters prohibited oil drilling in the city. In 1954 voters prohibited oil drilling in the bay.

We may not remember the identities of the politicians from back then, but those votes and their consequences reside deep in the collective civic unconscious of all Santa Monicans.

Fifty years from now, if the Santa Monica election of 2014 is remembered, it’s not likely to be remembered for the elections (and machinations) I’ve been writing about the past two weeks. More likely it will be remembered (occasionally) when someone enjoying the big park that the City is going to build on the site of the Santa Monica Airport will reflect back, and recall how Santa Monica voters in 2014 overwhelmingly passed Measure LC, which for all practical purposes mandates that a park will replace the airport, and defeated Measure D, the aviation industry’s measure designed to prevent the City from closing the airport.

The aviation industry’s well-funded effort to subvert normal political process in Santa Monica had the result of making it more likely that the airport will close. The landslide, where roughly 60 percent of voters rejected the industry’s desperate attempt to preserve the airport, creates a political context for closure by invalidating any aviation arguments about what “the people really want.” This will reverberate up the political ladder—even to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and to Congress.

And when the airport closes, LC, because of its requirement of a vote on any development other than a park, means that the land now being used for aviation purposes, in the range of 160 or 170 acres, will become a park.

On a personal note, losing my campaign for City Council wasn’t fun, but it was a great privilege to serve on the Executive Committee of the Committee for Local Control of Santa Monica Airport Land (CLCSMAL), the grassroots political committee that raised money and coordinated the campaign to pass LC and defeat D. Participating in that campaign was the highpoint of 20 years of activism.

So where now? How do we get from the 2014 vote to closing the airport and building a park? Where’s the cup, where’s the lip, and where are the slips between?

The big date is July 1. That’s the day after the 1984 Settlement Agreement, and all the aviation leases, expire. Based on the City’s interpretation of its rights as owner of the airport land, that’s the day the City can close the airport.

But the City’s rights are in dispute. While there are various legal issues, ultimately there is one: the FAA claims the City can’t close the airport because of a “perpetuity” clause in a 1948 agreement. It’s unlikely the FAA will abandon that claim, and the City and the FAA are going to need their dispute adjudicated.

The key factor will be in what forum that litigation takes place. The City wants its claims heard in federal court, where it will stand on comparatively equal footing with the FAA. To that end the City sued the FAA in 2013, seeking “declaratory relief”—i.e., a declaration of the City’s rights ahead of its taking action to close the airport. The FAA wants the issue determined in its own administrative proceedings, where it controls the pace of the proceedings and benefits from certain presumptions. To stay out of federal court, the FAA argued that the relevant procedures did not allow for the City’s suit. The judge agreed and dismissed the case.

The City has appealed that decision to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The City filed its brief in October and the FAA filed its reply brief last week. It does not appear that the Appeals Court has set a date for oral argument. Possibly we’ll have a decision by July 1. If the City wins the appeal, and sends the case back to District Court, then there will be a trial—no doubt followed by an appeal by whomever loses.

If the Ninth Circuit upholds the dismissal of the City’s suit, tactics will be more complicated. District Court Judge John Walter, when he dismissed the City’s suit, declared that although he “would like to address the merits of the City’s claims,” he had to conclude, “reluctantly,” that under the Constitution he didn’t have jurisdiction because the City’s claims were not ripe for review.

To make the conflict ripe, the City would need to close the airport, or at least take action that would lead to closure unless the FAA intervened. (In the words of the FAA’s brief, “If, in the future, the City ceases to operate Santa Monica Airport as an airport, and if the United States opts to exercise its right of reversion, the underlying dispute may be litigated in an action brought by the federal government.”)

But aye, there’s the rub, because if the FAA takes action to stop the City, it’s likely at least to try to do so with administrative proceedings. The situation is tricky. The City shouldn’t do anything that calls into question its right to close the airport July 1, but it needs to be careful that it doesn’t trigger a FAA proceeding when it could still get the case into federal court.

In the meantime, the City is not powerless. Most significant, all the leases on the aviation land expire June 30. (Not to be confused with leases on non-aviation land that the City has controlled since 1984; these should be dealt with separately.) The City needs to take control of the properties it owns at the airport and collect market-rate rents from tenants and subtenants. Even if the City defers closing the airport for an interim period while its rights get sorted out, it will be informative to see how many aviation businesses can survive at the airport without the twin subsidies of below-market rents and the money they make by subleasing property at market rates.

These issues will be the subject of much discussion in upcoming months. For now what I wanted to do was to remind folks about what an important election 2014 was for the future of Santa Monica.

Thanks for reading.

Dissecting a Press Release

Tuesday evening the Santa Monica City Council gave direction to City Attorney Marsha Moutrie to prepare a measure for the November ballot. The measure would be an alternative to the initiative that the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) has put forward to (in Ms. Moutrie’s words) “protect vested interests at the Santa Monica Airport” and “lock in the status quo at the Airport.”

Before the council hearing Tuesday the AOPA, through its local front organization, “Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions” (SMOHDD), issued a press release. I’ve decided to reprint the release here in its entirety, into which I’ll insert my comments. Here it is.


June 24, 2014

CONTACT: John Jerabek
(310) xxx-xxxx

Santa Monica City Council Plans Competing Airport Ballot Initiative to Confuse Voters

Last April, Santa Monica voters launched* one of the largest petition drives in the City’s history in an effort to end 40 years of political and legal wrangling over Santa Monica Airport and place the final authority for redeveloping** this valuable land where it should be — in the hands of the voters. This effort culminated with an unprecedented 15,734 signatures*** being submitted to the City Clerk in early June to pass the “Voters Decide” Charter Amendment on the November ballot.

* “Santa Monica voters launched . . .” Well, no. According to the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) filings for SMOHDD, the petition drive was entirely organized and paid for by the AOPA, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization. The AOPA hired Arno Political Consultants and other political operatives to import into Santa Monica an army of signature gatherers — you probably met some of them if you bought groceries during May and early June. (To access the SMOHDD FPPC filings, go to the City’s Clerk’s webpage for Disclosure Statements, click on “Public Access Portal,” and then “search by name” for “Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions.”)

** “the final authority for redeveloping . . . ” Also false. The AOPA initiative is silent about the redevelopment of the airport land — I hope this doesn’t shock anyone, but the AOPA is only interested in whether the airport stays in operation as an airport, and the right to vote in its measure is limited to the decision to close the airport. Should voters vote to do so, then, so far as the AOPA is concerned, see you later — the City can do whatever it wants with the land without any vote.

*** “15,734 signatures” is not a victory for the AOPA, but an admission that they expect a huge number of their signatures to be rejected as not valid, since they only need somewhat more than 9,000 good ones. If their signature quality had been better, they would surely have submitted their signatures a week earlier when they would have been assured that the County Registrar of Voters would have enough time to review them. (I’ve previously written about the signatures in detail here and here.)

Alarmed at the prospects of requiring voter approval of any effort to redevelop 227 acres of Santa Monica Airport land, the City Council this evening directed staff to draft the City’s own “voter initiative” to compete with the Voters Decide plan.

Anyone who watched the City Council hearing knows that the council was not “alarmed” about giving voters approval of redevelopment at the airport, since the council members repeatedly instructed the City Attorney to come back with a measure that would give voters the right to vote on future development. What is driving the council to consider a competing measure is the fact that Section 2(b) of the AOPA initiative seeks to prevent the City Council from managing the airport and the buildings and other property the City owns there in any way different from the status quo.

“This latest scheme is designed to mislead voters into thinking that they will be consulted before* politicians and developers achieve their goals of forcing out 175 businesses** and redeveloping airport land, at a loss of up to 1,500 jobs and $247 million in business activity,” said John Jerabek, a board member of Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions, the sponsor of the real “Voters Decide” initiative. “This new tactic is a charade, just the latest attempt by City politicians to achieve their development plans*** while keeping voters out of it,” Jerabek continued.

* “consulted before . . . ” False. As discussed already, the council members told the City Attorney to include a right to vote on future development of the airport land, a right the AOPA initiative doesn’t have.

** “175 businesses . . . ” Of all the garbage the AOPA has dumped on Santa Monica in this campaign, one false claim they can’t let go of is that by closing the airport the City would be putting 1,500 people out of work and causing a big hit to the city’s economy. This claim goes back to a study the City commissioned in 2011 from the HR&A consulting firm about the airport’s economic impact. Indeed, as HR&A found, the airport is the site of economic activity, but the amount of that activity turned out to be trivial in context of the whole of the city’s economy — the equivalent, the study said, of a 300,000 square foot office building, which if you follow development in Santa Monica you know isn’t much.

But beyond that, most of the airport’s economic impact is from non-aviation businesses. Yes, there are more than 1,500 jobs at the airport, but according to the study, only 178 of them are in aviation. For instance, Volkswagen has its West Coast design center in offices it subleases from an aviation business that has a master lease from the City — a lease that terminates July 1, 2015, at which point, if the AOPA initiative doesn’t interfere, the City will be able to take over the building and collect rents from Volkswagen — rents that we at Airport2Park hope one day will pay for the operating expenses of a big park. These non-aviation jobs aren’t going anywhere if the airport closes and, given the demands for office space in Santa Monica, the City will have no trouble leasing space now occupied by aviation businesses to new businesses.

*** “their development plans.” Another big lie. There are no development plans for the airport. This is fear-mongering pure and simple.

The Voters Decide initiative is simple:
– There can be no change in land use at Santa Monica Airport without voter approval.
– Unless change is approved by voters, the land will remain in low-density airport use.
– The City’s land-use authority is not constrained; the City can do what they think best, but not on behalf of special interests or self-interested activists and only following a citywide approval vote.

Again, if you read the AOPA initiative you’ll see that it only requires a vote on closing the airport. Once voters vote to close the airport, that’s it.

“Our message for City politicians is clear,” Jerabek continued. “If the City has a plan for 227 acres of the most valuable land on the Westside, let them get it approved by Santa Monica voters. It’s that simple!“

The message is clear, all right: we are nervous that the FAA can’t keep the airport open and we’re pulling out all the stops to get this deceptive measure passed so that we can continue to use all that publicly-owned land for ourselves.

About Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions
The Santa Monica Voters Decide Initiative is being led by Santa Monicans for Open and Honest Development Decisions. The committee believes the City and airport opponents have not been forthcoming with voters and taxpayers about redevelopment and land-use plans for the valuable airport property. The committee is supported by local residents, businesses and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Now this is amusing. This “committee” was formed by the AOPA using the political law firm of Reed and Davidson; which even supplied one of its partners, Flora Yin, as one of the three Santa Monica residents who filed the initiative. According to its most recent FPPC statement, through June 4, the SMOHDD has spent $144,577 and taken in $59,977 in contributions. (The organization has outstanding debts of $90,993 — most of it to Arno and to Reed & Davidson.)

Of the $59,977 in contributions, $56,000 had come from the AOPA (in cash; the AOPA contributed another $1,000 in services). About $3,000 had come in through 18 individual contributions of at least $100, but of those 18 contributors, only three have Santa Monica addresses, and their contributions total only $300. (A small amount, $670, has also been contributed in contributions less than $100, and granted, these contributors could include some Santa Monicans, too.)

But get that — just three contributors who have given at least $100 to SMOHDD are Santa Monicans. Of about $60,000 so far contributed, only $300 have come from them — half of one percent.

So — who has not been forthcoming? Is there any evidence that the SMOHDD is a genuine local organization that is supported by any residents and local businesses who don’t have an personal or financial interest in the airport?

Thanks for reading.

A page from the most recent FPPC fiing for SMOHDD

A page from the most recent FPPC fiing for SMOHDD

When 15,704 signatures are not 15,704 signatures

If you read my blog yesterday, where I wrote about what a struggle the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and their consultants, Arno Political Consulting, had to obtain signatures for their preserve-the-airport initiative, and then read the news reports that they had turned in 15,704 signatures, when they need about 9,150, you’re probably thinking that I was blowing smoke.

I wasn’t. The 15,704 number is a gross figure, including all the signatures that are not from registered Santa Monica voters, that are duplicates, or that are otherwise defective. These will be rejected when the Registrar of Voters reviews the petitions. Typically when a company (like Arno) uses paid-by-the-signature signature gatherers the rejection rate is high.

How high? One of the CASMAT volunteers who was counter-leafleting against signature gatherers over the weekend had, in a lull in the action, a civil conversation with an Arno representative who told him that Arno’s average rejection rate is 36 percent, and that in addition to that, with this petition they were finding a high rate, 6 percent, of duplicate signatures.

Now this information is secondhand, and who knows if the volunteer was getting played, but the numbers check out when you’re trying to explain why the AOPA waited so long to submit their signatures. If the 15,704 meant something, clearly the AOPA would have had enough signatures to submit them last week, to be sure they would be validated in time for the City Council to put the measure on the ballot.

Look at the numbers. Let’s say the volunteer got good information and the total of rejections and duplicates is 42 percent. In that case, the 15,704 “gross” signatures would equal 9,108 good ones. The AOPA says it needs about 9,100 good signatures – a coincidence? (And this 9,100 figure may be low; according the Santa Monica Daily Press, in the final tally of the Hines referendum Residocracy needed 6,525 signatures, representing 10 percent of registered voters. The AOPA needs, for its charter amendment, more — 15 percent; if 6,525 does equal 10 percent, then the AOPA needs 9,788.

What makes this even more interesting is that according to the City Clerk’s office, 102 voters filed notices rescinding their signatures – clearly enough to make a difference if it’s as close as it easily could be.

Delivering 15,704 signatures was no triumph for the AOPA. They may not even make it to the ballot.

* * *

There were many ironies surrounding the delivery of the signatures – the whole thing was a masquerade where a big national lobbyist firm was trying to pass itself off as a grassroots movement – but one irony stood out.

According to The Lookout, one resident the AOPA put forward to represent their astro-turf movement, Flora Yin, stated that, “‘Voters like me are tired of the insider political game that has gone on too long.’” Yin didn’t mention that she is a partner in the law firm that the AOPA hired to draft the initiative and run the legal side of the campaign. The firm, Reed & Davidson, and Yin herself, specialize in political law, including ballot initiatives – in other words, in playing the insider political game that so fatigues Yin. (FYI, the firm’s URL is www.politicallaw.com.)

Dear Ms. Yin: I know you’re tired, but voters like me are tired of operatives like you foisting phony populist initiatives on the rest of us.

Thanks for reading.

A sign of the recent times.

A sign of the recent times.