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Orange County Supervisors on Monday gave final approval to contracts that could increase private jet activity over John Wayne Airport, and denied residents’ calls to restrict flights’ hours of operation and ban the construction of an aviation facility that could serve larger, noisier aircraft.
The vote caps a years-long saga filled with corruption allegations and non-transparency concerns hurled at several supervisors. Read: Private Jet Plan for John Wayne Airport Sparks Resident Concern and Corruption Allegations.
Those allegations continued to unfold at the supervisor dais and by members of the public Tuesday.
Long-term, 35-year contracts to service hundreds of propeller planes, helicopters and other non-airline aircraft flying in and out of John Wayne will go to ACI Jet — which already operates out of John Wayne — and Clay Lacy Aviation.
The companies will overhaul the plane facilities and service non-airline flights, mostly hobby planes, to and from the airport — a role formally known as a “Fixed Base Operator.”
Jay’s Aircraft Services, which supervisors last month moved forward with for a third contract to become a limited aviation service at the airport, is still negotiating with the county, according to county spokeswoman Molly Nicholson.
In opting not to follow residents’ requests to add hours of operation restrictions and a ban on a general aviation facility to the leases, supervisors cited their top lawyer, Leon Page’s opinion that federal aviation law bars them from doing so, and pointed to the companies who themselves already promised to follow some of those restrictions in writing.
Newport city officials and airport watchdogs disagreed, and wanted those commitments bolstered through provisions inside the airport lease agreements, along with restrictions on any future policymaking board’s ability to go back on those restrictions.
“There is no basis for the airport staff’s failure to include language limiting the (companies’) hours of operation and their failure to do so should be overwritten and their leases should be amended to include this language,” said airport watchdog and Newport Beach resident Sue Dvorak. “Only the airport staff and Board of Supervisors want to put residents’ health at risk with the operational expansion of JWA without lease provisions.”
The vote for ACI Jet was unanimous Tuesday, but the vote for Clay Lacy Aviation had a lone dissenter in Supervisor Don Wagner, who originally pushed a rival company for the contract but lost out to Clay Lacy last month.
Before the vote, Wagner criticized his colleagues’ unwillingness to hear objections raised by Atlantic, Wagner’s favored company, which demanded supervisors delay their decision in a protest letter the company’s lawyers sent to the county yesterday.
Page during the meeting defended supervisors’ legal ability to take a vote despite Atlantic’s protest, prompting a back and forth between him, Wagner, and other supervisors that eventually led to Wagner proclaiming before the vote:
“Let’s talk about an open process — we’re congratulating ourselves that this is open. We have a protest process in the bid we say we don’t have to follow, and decided we don’t have to follow … we are not releasing proposals to the public … but don’t worry folks, this is an open process.”
Wagner, a Republican, added he didn’t share “this board’s sanguine view that this is an open process,” instead calling it a “very much not open, very much not transparent process.”
“And I think we do not do our broader constituency, the entire County of Orange, any service by functioning in such a closed and narrow environment that looks like we’re going in a direction that is preordained and by the way is in a direction that airport staff, lacking the courage of its convictions publicly, is saying they don’t,” he continued.
His remarks sparked immediate reactions from his colleagues, like Supervisor Andrew Do.
“When people disagree with anything the county does or the board does, the quick go-to argument is we’re corrupt, we’re not transparent, and we brow-beat staff to go against their better judgement or maybe even against their conscience. And for that narrative to be somehow echoed from the very body that governs this process is troubling,” Do said.
He added: “As an elected, courage is when we push back against the tendency to throw bombs when we don’t get what we want, because that’s what the people who want us to support their side want us to be, to get on that soap box and play their game. That is what is driving our country to be the way we are — in turmoil.”
Supervisor Lisa Bartlett, also responding to Wagner, said “this has been a very long process but it has been an open and transparent and accountable process.”
Around 33 people spoke in public comments about the leases.
Many of them were local officials like Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill and council members Jeff Herdman and Diane Dixon, who all asked the county to write into the leases the hours of operation and general aviation facility restrictions residents were asking for or ensure those requests would be honored by the companies.
Representatives of ACI Jet and Clay Lacy before the board said they would either limit operations at night with a hard close or dis-incentivize tenants from operating at night.
Both companies, in letters to the board, also supported the idea of not constructing a general aviation facility, which airport expansion opponents fear would attract more private jets and international clientele, if that was the wish of county officials.
“There is a great fear that loud private jets will be flying over our homes 24/7,” said Newport Beach resident and airport watchdog Susan Dvorak. “All parties involved in this process agree with the lease provisions the cities of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa and residents — numerous residents — have presented to you, including eliminating the general aviation facility, which will attract huge international jets.”
She added: “Only the airport staff and BOS want to put residents’ health at risk with the operational expansion of JWA without lease provisions.”
Though dozens of speakers came forward to the Board of Supervisors imploring them to find a way to work with JetSuiteX, a private jet charter that wouldn’t be able to operate out of an FBO under the new contracts the county entered into with ACI and Clay Lacy.
One of those speakers was JetSuiteX CEO Alex Wilcox, who dropped off ten thumb drives of written public comments from his company’s customers: “You’ve heard from our customers, you’ve heard from our crew members.”
“I found out about this first on Thursday, I was blindsided frankly, when our landlord called and said … he may not accommodate services such as JSX at his property and therefore he wouldn’t be able to provide services to us subject to Jan. 1,” he said. “Never did I get a phone call from anyone at the airport, anyone at the county about this — completely blindsided.”
Airport spokeswoman Deanne Thompson on Tuesday said JetSuiteX would still be able to operate at John Wayne after Jan. 1.
The only difference, she said, is that the company would have to operate out of a commercial terminal — “in the same manner as the other commercial and commuter carriers.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.