Whirlybird Brained

Photo by Tenaya HillsTheLosAngelescountySheriff'sDepartment(LASD) has conjured up a powerful if unwitting ally in its effort to relocate its fleet of 16 helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft inside Orange County's last active military airbase: al-Qaeda.

Moving its entire Aero Bureau from Long Beach Airport to the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos would accomplish several objectives for LASD. It would cut operating overhead by two-thirds and free the fleet from the tight airspace controls they presently operate under in Long Beach. But the biggest payoff for the department would come in the form of a $20.3 million congressional appropriation to build hangars, maintenance facilities and an office complex at Los Al.

Why should U.S. taxpayers be stuck with the tab for a county aero fleet?

Two words: homeland security.

“We're attempting to bolster and pool our resources more effectively with homeland security in mind,” said LASD Aero Bureau Captain Jim Di Giovanna, Sheriff Lee Baca's point man for the move. “Since 9/11, the war on terror has forced us to think more strategically about our role in fighting terrorism. This move supports that role.”

Last year, when LASD officials first unveiled plans to move to the base, Los Al residents objected, complaining they were already fed up with the low-flying police whirlybirds buzzing their homes as part of ongoing training exercises at the base. In response, Di Giovanna promised that the Aero Bureau relocation was merely a “conceptual possibility” and that both the public and local officials “would be fully informed and involved in any future developments in the proposal.”

Unfortunately for the LASD, the proposal died when the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee refused to fund the move. It appeared the proposal was dead and the Aero Bureau would just have to make due in Long Beach. But Di Giovanna and Baca have been busy boys, working the back channels of Congress in hopes of securing cash from this year's yet-to-be-approved appropriations bill—and its $41.1 billion homeland-security component—to fund the move to Los Al.

Since the Senate snub, LASD has enlisted the support of law-enforcement officials and heavy-hitter California politicians to portray the move as vital to ensuring homeland security—without informing some of those who'd ostensibly be protected (the public) or those who'd have to deal with the fallout from every angry community that surrounds the base.

It was not even clear to locals how far along the “proposal” had moved until a couple of months ago, when Los Alamitos City Manager Henry Taboada and Jody Schloss of the citizen watchdog group Neighborhood Action Committee/Los Alamitos got wind of a secretive briefing on the base the day before it was to be held. No local officials had been notified of the meeting, which Di Giovanna presented to representatives of 18 California congressional members. “We essentially had to invite ourselves,” Schloss said.

By the time the briefing was over, it was clear to Taboada and Schloss that what was being proposed and the timetable for achieving it constituted more than a “conceptual possibility.” A strong plea was made for participants to call on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to appeal directly to the White House for “presidential support” in funding the move from Long Beach to Los Al with federal dollars.

Key law-enforcement and local congressional reps were being enlisted as early as last year to lobby for “presidential support.” Among the members of Congress who are already signatories to the plan are Christopher Cox (R-Newport Beach), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee. Sanchez said she was approached by Baca himself last year and that he told her officials at the local level and residents surrounding the base were “all onboard.”

That's news to Taboada, who says his City Council is unanimously opposed to the move. “If we hadn't stumbled onto this meeting, these developments would still be secret,” he said. “This sort of clandestine atmosphere goes against everything that open government stands for. They appear to have gone into stealth mode.”

At Toboada's insistence, Di Giovanna agreed to attend a hastily organized special council meeting in February that drew several hundred concerned residents and officials from surrounding communities. Then, at the last minute, the sheriff's captain backed out, explaining to city officials he was not yet ready to make a public presentation “in a town-hall setting.”

That didn't sit well with Los Alamitos Mayor Ken Parker. “If this plan is developed enough to present for funding to the bureaucrats in D.C., why then can't it be presented to the public here in the place it will have the most impact?” Parker asked. “What do they have to hide?”

His suspicions are shared by other local officials.

“I think their silence says it all,” remarked Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach). Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) called the proposal a “misuse of taxpayer dollars.” Even county Supervisor Jim Silva was aghast at the strategy of leapfrogging the plan through the governor's office and ultimately to the president. “This proposal is the poster child for exactly how you don't set public policy,” he said.

Meanwhile, Congressman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton), whose district includes the Los Al base, was miffed that he was not part of the congressional delegation briefed by Di Giovanna. Royce pointed out that congressional courtesy requires that an appropriations request be run past the representative in whose district the request is targeted.

“I've been in the dark like everybody else,” Royce said. “I question how they could even pursue such an effort, especially since I have expressed my opposition to LA helicopters in Orange County directly to [Chris] Cox on several occasions. As far as I can tell, nobody in this county is for the plan, except a few high-ranking officials. Everybody else is from LA.”

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