Santana: Given Campaign Cash for OC Supervisors, Newport Beach Residents Right to Worry About JWA Expansion Plans

JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC

A small plane passes over the 405 Freeway in Santa Ana as it approaches for a landing at John Wayne Airport in June 2017.

Newport Beach residents are right to be wary of expansion plans at John Wayne Airport to open a new private, executive jet terminal, slated for approval next month by Orange County supervisors.

County officials have sought to ease residents concerns over the expansion plan, saying that private jet traffic is a very small part of overall revenues at JWA.

Yet following the money in a different direction shows residents are right to be nervous.

Considering all the campaign cash county supervisors courted in 2017 over a recent private aviation contract for executive jet services at JWA, residents worried about noise from jet traffic at the airport should brace for the worst.

County supervisors are expected to consider the ambitious expansion plan for a private jet terminal on May 7 at their meeting chambers inside the County Hall of Administration in Santa Ana.

Now, county airport commissioners – appointed by supervisors on a district basis to flesh out tough issues like jet noise at JWA – were expected to debate the issue this past week but balked after hearing from attorneys representing concerned residents, according to the Daily Pilot, opting instead to continue educating themselves privately, until their next meeting on May 1.

Despite county efforts to ease resident concerns, much like in the case of nearby homeless shelters in Santa Ana, there is distrust of the county when it comes to protecting neighborhood quality of life.

Newport Beach has had to sue the county over airport impacts before, in the 1980s, which led to a settlement limiting commercial traffic. Today, many residents see the county using the need to address some overdue FAA fixes as an excuse to ramp up private aviation.

Residents packed the airport commission chambers last week.

Miranda Andrade-CEJA, Voice of OC

The April 17 Airport Commission meeting was so well attended that seating was set up outside.

 

“This is not an Federal Aviation Administration issue,” said Newport Beach resident Julie Johnson at last week’s packed county airport commission meeting. “This is the county trying to expand the airport.”

The issue of airport expansion – something that dominated Orange County civic life in the 1990s – is opening old wounds with neighbors.

Kenneth Wong, an attorney and 52-year resident of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach, told commissioners that the passage of Measure S, which blocked a proposed commercial airport in South Orange County at the former El Toro Marine Air Base in 1996, helped create the pressure that John Wayne Airport is experiencing today.

“[The passage of Measure S] is part of why these pressures are on our local airport, which was intended for small plane operations,” Wong said.

“Whatever your proposal and recommendation be, [make sure] it is not one that increases the hours of flight operations, and one that does not, therefore, increase the amount of noise. Because this is very much affecting the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the surrounding area.”

“I get the noise like it’s nobody’s business,” said Chris Mclaughlin, a Back Bay resident who spoke during public comments. “These planes have made my backyard unlivable.”

Newport Beach residents speaking to commissioners heavily favored a plan backed by their city council which, if adopted, would allow for FAA-required adjustments at JWA but not increase the frequency of private aircraft departures.

It’s clear that the residents that packed last week’s hearing are making a difference in halting plans to move forward.

And from the tone of Wednesday’s meeting at John Wayne Airport, it’s clear that residents – much like their concerns – aren’t going away.

Yet what isn’t going away either is the pressure on the airport to expand, especially on the private aviation side of the shop where there are less limitations on county officials and more campaign cash possibilities for county supervisors.

Just consider that when companies battled in 2017 over a lucrative county contract to run general aviation services at John Wayne Airport, county supervisors fundraised thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from potential contractors.

Ultimately, county supervisors granted the lease to a firm that was ranked fifth out of six by the county’s evaluation panel.

Yet the winning fifth-ranked company, ACI Jet, and its supporters spent twice as much in political campaign contributions to supervisors as the first-ranked company, Signature Flight Support, according to a Voice of OC review of campaign filings for the months leading up to the February decision.

The Voice of OC review of campaign filings found that supervisors collected thousands of dollars in contributions from people who work or advocate for the companies vying for the lease.

As the lease decision was approaching in the second half of last year, ACI and its supporters outspent Signature by 2-to-1 in contributions to supervisors, records show. ACI’s supporters contributed $7,700, while Signature’s supporters spent $2,750.

Then-County Supervisor Todd Spitzer (now DA) received $4,300 from ACI supporters and $1,250 from Signature supporters.

Today, as DA, Spitzer enforces the county’s campaign finance law.

County Supervisor Andrew Do received $1,900 from ACI supporters and $250 from Signature supporters.

County Supervisor Shawn Nelson received $1,000 from ACI supporters.

Supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett – the only no vote against choosing ACI – received $500 from ACI supporters and $1,250 from Signature supporters.”

A federal complaint filed by Signature Flight Support after the contract vote alleged Orange County supervisors were biased in favor of their campaign donors and violated federal requirements for airport contracting when they chose the company that was ranked fifth for a major lease at JWA.

“Through the [bidding process], it was determined that Signature was the most qualified firm and awarding a lease to Signature would be most advantageous to the Airport,” Signature wrote in its complaint.

The Board of [Supervisors] disregarded this finding and instead awarded the lease to ACI Jet because of the Board’s bias towards its campaign donors.”

The complaint cited over $23,000 in contributions to supervisors’ campaigns in recent years from people connected to the ACI Jet contract.

This kind of campaign cash connection – not the search for higher revenues at JWA – is what should make Newport Beach residents very wary.

Their quality of life is being sold off, cheaply, to help finance political campaigns for local elected officials who are scrambling for a way to hook up with their next public office.

Now, county supervisors – who systematically restrict public comment – will convince themselves there is no neighborhood impact, approve the changes, collect their campaign cash and move on.

JWA neighbors won’t be so lucky.

Especially if they stay silent now.

Miranda Andrade contributed to this report.