Clock ticking to appoint Santa Maria Airport director

By Brian Bullock/Staff Writer Santa Maria Times | Posted: Saturday, July 30, 2011

Appointing a successor to Ted Eckert on the Santa Maria Public Airport Board of Directors could come down to the wire for the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors at its Sept. 6 meeting.

The airport board couldn’t come to an agreement on who to appoint within 60 days of Eckert’s death with the directors — President Hugh Rafferty, Carl Engel Jr., Chuck Adams and Chuck Damiano — deadlocked on support between former board member Donald Lahr and local dentist Girard Brenneman, who has run in the past two elections.

According to state election law, the inability to select an appointee moves the decision to the county Board of Supervisors, which will have 30 days from the time it’s notified to make an appointment or call for an election. It’s not real unusual. We’ve done it fairly frequently on various boards or commissions that were unable to fill appointments,” said 4th District Supervisor Joni Gray. “We’ve never done one quite this high profile before, at least since I’ve been here.”

Six men applied for the airport board’s vacant seat — Denis Breslin, Ken Dally, Richard Jensen, Tim Larson, Brenneman and Lahr — but the Board of Supervisors isn’t limited to those candidates, said Ray Biering, the airport district’s attorney.

“The county Board of Supervisors has the authority to appoint anyone it chooses,” Biering said. “They would have to be a resident of district. They would have to meet the requirements of the board position but that’s it.”

Time could become an issue if the Board of Supervisors chooses to appoint someone to the position. Eckert died June 7, which started a 90-day countdown to appoint a successor.

The airport board had 60 days to make an appointment, call for an election, pass the decision on to the Board of Supervisors or take no action, which is what it did. 

Unlike most airports in the state, Santa Maria’s is operated by a special district overseen by a five-person board of directors. The 400-square mile district includes the Santa Maria Valley from Guadalupe to Tepusquet Canyon.

Since its formation, the district’s board has often had a sharp split, pitting hangar tenants and private pilots on one side against airport neighbors or business people.

Airport General Manager Chris Hastert said when the board decided to take no action, it allows airport counsel and staff until Aug. 6 to notify the county, which could postpone the appointment until its first meeting in September.

The supervisors meet only twice in August before a three-week break and then meet again Sept. 6. Gray said their agendas for the August meetings are full.  If the supervisors don’t make an appointment, it could go to a special election on the second Tuesday in April or the first Tuesday in June 2012, according to Biering. Or it could remain open until the November general election, said Billie Alvarez, county chief deputy registrar of voters.

On Thursday night, Hastert said items placed on the past two ballots cost anywhere between $15,000 and $44,000 depending on the number of items on it.

If the seat remains open until November 2012, the district’s 47,674 registered voters would be asked to fill four of five seats. The four-year terms of Rafferty, Engel and Adams are set to expire that year.

Gray said the supervisors most likely would appoint a director to save the district the cost of an election.

The morning after directors failed to appoint a fifth member, board members on both sides of the battle were philosophical.

“That’s the way the political system works. We have a lot of good candidates. We have a pretty good board and we can agree to disagree,” said Adams, who Thursday night expressed his desire to have the airport board appoint its own director. “I would prefer that, but that’s the way the system works.” 

Rafferty agreed.  “It’s always nice when you can get people to line up behind one applicant or another. It was pretty close, both guys were very qualified,” he said Friday. “I think everybody did their job and they gave it their due diligence. That’s when you have four people on the board. I’m disappointed that we couldn’t come to agreement.”

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