This tumultuous year has proven the essential nature of nonpartisan local news. Every day we bring you news critical to staying informed and active in the community. Join us with a tax-deductible donation.

Orange County airport commissioners on Wednesday adopted a controversial set of recommendations that has nearby residents on edge about a spike in noise from private jets at John Wayne Airport.

Airport officials also came under significant criticism from residents in the wake of Wednesday’s meeting over the total breakdown in phone conferencing that left many residents unable to participate in the meeting remotely, out of coronavirus health concerns. 

The recommendations — which are in line with a political compromise brokered by county supervisors and Newport Beach officials — are set to go up for final approval at next Tuesday’s public meeting, Aug. 11. 

The only way to listen to the commission meeting from home was by dialing into a teleconference call, and the call quality for much of the meeting was muffled or utterly inaudible.

No live video options are available to view these airport meetings, and members of the public can’t revisit past public meetings because the recordings aren’t posted and archived on the airport website.

At one point, a moderator of the teleconference channel could be heard raising the issue to those at the meeting in person after getting complaints from callers. The meeting continued.

For local organizer Nancy Alston, Wednesday night “was just another example” of “outrageous” restrictions on public participation at even the most sub-level public panels.

For a county with multi-million dollar operations, “you can’t spend a couple hundred more so we can hear?” Alston — a board member for Stop Polluting Our Newport (SPON) — said the day after the meeting.

Alston said while the commissioners’ meeting largely didn’t have any action tied to it, it was still the latest development in a years-long, very public debate over what kind of aircraft services John Wayne should have — with no room for slip ups or error.

The meeting was available to members of the public to view and speak in person. But for people like Newport Beach resident Beverly Moosman — who are in the at-risk age bracket while COVID-19 is still a public health risk — “I’ve been very, very careful with COVID-19, so I didn’t go to the meeting in person for that reason, and it was overall very frustrating.”

“It was very, very difficult to hear anything being said — terribly muffled, like they were talking in a tunnel, and at times it got fixed and was ample enough, but eventually it got too frustrating to try to listen so I just gave up,” said Moosman, who’s been involved in the airport issue and local advocacy for years around reducing noise and air quality pollution in her city.

After a Voice of OC reporter raised the issue with a county spokesperson Wednesday night, the audio quality improved at times, though repeatedly reverted back to muffled noise and even complete silence.

A small plane passes over the 405 Freeway in Santa Ana as it approaches for a landing at John Wayne Airport in June 2017. Credit: JEFF ANTENORE, Voice of OC

Airport spokesperson Tricia Landquist, in response to Voice of OC questions, provided a full audio recording of the meeting and said  “meeting minutes will be posted on our website by August 14.”

That’s three days after supervisors would have already considered the item. 

Asked whether the airport currently posts audio recordings of past meetings on its website, Landquist called it a “great idea and something we can look into.”

Alston said she spoke to at least 10 other people who called into the meeting and leveled the same complaints. At one point, as many as 31 callers had tuned into the meeting.

Responding to further Voice of OC questions at a Thursday county news conference, county spokesperson Molly Nicholson said “obviously it’s a very difficult time for government agencies to figure out the newest technological advances, and how we’re going to be able to be responsive for public inquiries and balancing the need for public response.”

“Sometimes we do have missteps and problems that do occur,” she said, pointing out that airport staff did try “to mitigate the issues related to it — it does sound like they did stop the meeting at one point in regard to it, to try to rectify those issues.” 

“We do apologize if there were some problems. I will follow up with them to see if we can’t have a better solution for a long term that may be occurring over at John Wayne Airport,” Nicholson said.

Laura Oatman, a district director for Congressman Harley Rouda who tuned into the meeting, said at times “I could hear there was somebody talking, but it was really far away sounding and staticy, and I couldn’t understand a single word they were saying.”

“Every once in a while, there were voices of callers listening in to the meeting themselves going, ‘excuse me can anybody hear me?’ and then at one point, it went completely blank and some of us staying on the call a bit longer shot into the void, going, ‘hello?’ and then I just hung up after five or ten minutes,” Oatman said.

Alston said “it should have been the kind of meeting online with something like Zoom, or with an option where callers could make comments over the phone … they wouldn’t let us speak unless we went over there or emailed.”

In Newport Beach, a public committee and City Council meeting where officials made their own recommendations on the airport jet space made their meetings available to video livestream. 

Newport Beach City Council meetings — just like every other city in Orange County — also make past meetings available to rewatch on their meeting archives list.

Like Newport, county airport commissioners on Wednesday recommended aviation companies ACI Jet, Clay Lacy, and Jay’s Aircraft Maintenance to become fixed base operators at the airport — meaning they’ll provide aviation and maintenance services to non-airline aircraft like private jets, small propeller planes, and helicopters.

Community members and leaders have objected to any agreements that would result in more noisy jets flying over the city or allow larger private jet expansions to push out smaller “mom-and-pop” operators at the airport.

Amid all these recommendations, the final decision will ultimately be made by the county Board of Supervisors at their Aug. 11 meeting. 

As part of their recommendations, airport commissioners proposed an amendment to the tentative lease agreements between the county and the aviation companies, which would specify in writing that the companies would — in summary — limit large jets at their facilities and keep the current mix of small and large jets. 

Many of the companies involved in bidding for the private jet business lease have donated campaign contributions to county supervisors. 

There are outstanding concerns by airport watchdogs about the whole process. 

Sue Dvorak, a member of Newport Beach’s own aviation committee, has pointed out in public meetings that the county in April sent back the aviation companies’ bids for modification.

When county supervisors last year approved the conditions for companies’ airport lease bids, Supervisor Michelle Steel amended the county’s original, controversial plans to scrap smaller aircraft spaces to make way for larger private jets, and instead approved conditions that any bidding companies would keep “the same mix” of small and large aircraft operators.

But the county’s act of sending back those bidding companies’ proposals for modification and resubmission might put those new jet space conditions in jeopardy, Dvorak argued.

Airport spokesperson Deanne Thompson, responding to previous Voice of OC questions, said while the companies’ proposals were modified, the conditions that include Steel’s amendment to the jet space acreage “remained unchanged.”

Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at bpho@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @photherecord.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.