Would Somebody Please Tell Gary Simon the Airport Is Dead?

Somebody ought to tap county El Toro director Gary Simon on the shoulder. In no time, he's going to look like one of those emaciated Japanese soldiers pulled out of some Pacific island jungle in the 1960s, oblivious to the end of World War II.

It has been a month since voters passed Measure W, killing the county's plans for a massive international airport at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station.

Yet, Gary Simon—the county's head airport planner—is acting as if Measure W never existed. He's in Washington, D.C., meeting with the county's five El Toro lobbying firms, hired 14 months ago to get the feds to rally behind the county's airport proposal.

"The LRA [Local Redevelopment Authority] lobbyists in Washington, D.C., are still involved in advocacy and outreach activities related to El Toro," wrote LRA spokeswoman Michelle Emard in an e-mail to the Weekly. "[T]here are still relationships to maintain with various federal agencies. . . . Basically, it's business as usual."

Business as usual? One day after the March 5 Measure W vote, the Navy announced it would "honor the decision of Orange County voters in favor of non-aviation uses of MCAS El Toro." Following that announcement, Simon might have used that as an opportunity to post his résumé on Monster.com. He might also have fired the county's D.C. lobbyists: Hill & Knowlton; Higgins, McGovern & Smith; Fred DuVal; Glenn LeMunyon; and Rhoads Maguire Group. That action alone would have saved the county tens of thousands of dollars remaining on its $1.2 million lobbying contract.

There's also a legal matter at stake. The lobbyists are paid from John Wayne Airport revenues. The federal government has said such funds can be used for airport development only. Now, of course, there's no airport.

Even if Simon wanted to play it cool—betting that the courts might undo Measure W—he still has ample reason to fire the lobbyists: they failed to deliver. Despite all the money and expertise, the lobbyists never did get the Navy Department to turn over the base to the county.

Indeed, the lobbyists' chief product seemed to be sheer optimism. According to the monthly El Toro reports Simon sent the county Board of Supervisors, county staff regularly strategized with the lobbyists. It's not clear what the lobbyists told Simon, but Simon always had good news for his bosses on the Board of Supervisors.

His February 2002 report—detailing El Toro activities just weeks before the March 5 election—is a real gem. It shows staff and the lobbyists lost in their own fantasy, consulting on "future airport development appropriations" and "completion of federal environmental review process" as though Measure W's imminent and widely predicted victory was nothing to worry about.

"The lobbyists' work is over," said one El Toro source. "It doesn't make any sense that Simon has to consult personally with the lobbyists back in Washington—unless he's interviewing for a job."

 
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