Gruber: 2014 Was a Historic Election for Santa Monica


Photo by Gary Kavanagh
Photo by Gary Kavanagh

Editor’s Note: Below is the most recent installment in a series about Santa Monica’s 2014 municipal election by long-time political observer and former City Council candidate, Frank Gruber. This post originally appeared on Gruber’s personal blogThe Healthy City Local.

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.


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