By: CJ Dablo
Neighborhood advocates opposed to any more talk of an international airport have braced for impact. Last month’s decision by the Long Beach Airport Advisory Commission to discuss the possibility of asking the city council to revisit the international-terminal issue has galvanized staunch critics, and they planned to make their voices heard at the commission meeting on Thursday, March 16.
(That meeting took place at press time, and a future story will include details of the commission decision.)
It’s one discussion that will likely draw quite a few attentive ears. On Jan. 24, the Long Beach City Council had declined to approve a proposal to build a federal-inspection service (FIS) facility and had seemed to shut down any further consideration of an international terminal at Long Beach Airport. However, this week, the commission has been looking at a proposal to ask the city council to reconsider their January decision.
The news was not welcomed by the community groups that had launched a major campaign to oppose an international airport. Neighborhood-advocacy groups Long Beach Neighborhoods First and LB HUSH2 regularly recruited dozens of residents who filled meeting rooms with signs in protest of the FIS facility over the past two years whenever the topic was discussed.
Former 8th District Councilmember Rae Gabelich is a spokeswoman for both advocacy groups. She noted in an interview with the Signal Tribune that the entire controversy over the potential airport transformation has been an “enlightening” experience, adding that “it’s engaged a whole population that hasn’t been engaged before.” Gabelich praised the swift communication between residents from all over the city through social networks and attentive bloggers.
City leaders and airport commissioners were not immune from the pressure on both sides of the issue. Long Beach resident Laurie Smith said she filed complaints with both the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) and the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office against Airport Advisory Commission Chair Karen Sherman and now former Vice Chair Glenn Ray.
The news broke last week that Ray resigned from the commission. Assistant City Attorney Michael Mais said that he did not believe that the City had forced his resignation. Mais had a copy of Ray’s resignation letter, and it did not mention the controversy over an international terminal nor any allegations of misconduct against him.
Ray’s letter is brief.
“Please accept this notice as my official resignation from the Long Beach Airport Advisory Commission,” Ray wrote in his emailed letter. “I have served over four years as an airport commissioner and co-chair of the AAC, and I have also served 10 years on the Economic Development Commission. It has been an awesome experience participating in the process, but I now find that it is time for me to focus my efforts toward other goals and objectives. Thank you for the opportunity to serve my community.”
Mais acknowledged that Smith had filed a complaint with the FPPC. He explained that commission members should and do recuse themselves when there are conflicts of interest. He also said that Sherman is expected to recuse herself from Thursday’s discussion but did not specify why. Back in February, she recused herself from the commission’s decision to revisit the issue.
Smith said she was happy that Ray had resigned.
“But I would be even happier to see that the investigation has reached the conclusion that we’ve been looking for,” Smith said, adding that she was disappointed that city leaders had not vetted commissioners. She explained that both Sherman and Ray had declared their financial interests in documents that should have been reviewed by city officials.
“This could have all been avoided,” Smith concluded.
Smith particularly scrutinized Ray’s financial interests last December when she noted that city councilmembers were considering approving a lease agreement with Ray’s company worth about $800,000. Smith said that when she voiced her opposition to the agreement in light of FPPC’s “investigation” into her allegations, the city council chose to delay approval.
Smith questioned the bias of the commission itself and suggested that the City develop a community roundtable to engage residents.
“You want to have an airport that is looked at with fondness and with pride by the residents, not with terror,” she concluded, adding that the residents have no voice in what happens at the airport. “And that’s been clearly made over this customs-facility issue as well as the improprieties that have occurred at the Airport Advisory Commission.”
Mais acknowledged in an interview with the Signal Tribune that Sherman is a consultant in the airport industry and that Ray had business interests at the airport. He explained that their business ties should not necessarily eliminate them from serving on that commission.
“So, it doesn’t even remotely surprise me that they have people that are involved in the airport on the commission,” Mais said. He noted that often people who serve on the commission will bring different areas of expertise and added that there are community members who do serve on that commission. The assistant city attorney said that he looked over the recommendations from the commission over the previous two years, and as far as he could tell, that commission didn’t make a single recommendation to the council.
Mais acknowledged that the council had been considering the lease agreement with Ray’s company and that his office asked the FPPC for its opinion on whether it was OK for the City to enter into that agreement. He did not characterize that request for an opinion by the FPPC as an “investigation.”
“So, we believe from a legal standpoint,” Mais concluded, “[Ray] was never in a position to ‘influence’ the City– under the law– entering into the lease.” The assistant city attorney acknowledged that he was only privy to Smith’s letter of complaint to the FPPC, but he was not aware of the status of that complaint.
Community-advocacy leader Gabelich said she is ready for the issue to be discussed during Thursday night’s commission meeting. She is hoping for dozens of neighbors to turn up.
“You know, it’s certainly been publicized,” Gabelich concluded. “People are talking about it…so, I think that in that small, tight room, there…I wouldn’t be surprised that they had an overflow crowd.”