Four candidates vie for airport board seats

By Julian J. Ramos / Staff Writer / jramos@santamariatimes.com  Santa Maria Times

Four candidates are in the running for two seats on the Santa Maria Public Airport District board of directors.  Incumbents Chuck Damiano and Ted Eckert will face challengers Richard Plumlee and Girard (Geoff) Brenneman on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Santa Maria’s airport, known as SMX, is somewhat rare because it is operated by a special district, not a city or county. It is governed by a five-member board of directors who are elected to four-year terms. The district was created in 1964 and covers 400 square miles between the Santa Maria River in the north to just past Los Alamos in the south and from Guadalupe in the west to 10 miles past the dam at Twitchell Reservoir.

Major upcoming projects include a long-awaited runway extension project and the Santa Maria Airport Business Park plan to build a business park and golf course on about 740 acres just south of the airfield.

The airport has daily flights to and from Los Angeles and service three times a week to and from Las Vegas.

The candidates

  • Name: Richard Plumlee
  • Age: 47
  • Occupation: Salesman
  • Lived locally: All his life
  • Family: Married 21 years, one child

Tired of having to drive to airports in Santa Barbara or San Luis Obispo for “decent flights”, Plumlee wants to bring more airline flights into Santa Maria.  “You can’t fly anywhere,“ Plumlee, a vice president at Santa Maria Diesel Service, said.

A lifelong Santa Maria resident, Plumlee said he is passionate about the community and wants to attract more air travel to bring in more visitors to stimulate the local economy.  Although satisfied with the job the board and administration are doing at the airport, if elected, Plumlee wants to ensure everything is being done to improve the quality of air travel.  As an outsider looking in, he’d like to know why more flights are not available at SMX.

The airport schedule currently offers daily flights to and from Los Angeles and service to and from Las Vegas three times a week.

Plumlee served just under 21 years in the California Army National Guard before his retirement. He was deployed four times to combat zones — Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Kosovo.  He has worked at Santa Maria Diesel for 28 years.

———

  • Name: Ted Eckert
  • Age: 75
  • Occupation: Retired flight safety analyst
  • Lived locally: 31 years
  • Family: Married 54 years, two children

A board member for 21 years, Eckert believes in the value of continuity when it comes to experience coupled with new faces and new ideas. He is hoping to continue making contributions to what he described as the “one of the finest airports on the Central Coast.”  “I enjoy the work very much and thank my background and education,” he said.

A challenge for Santa Maria and for all smart market airports is attracting air service, said Eckert, a retired Air Force colonel. A determined effort is underway to add destinations, flights, and air carriers, he said. Terminal improvements have been meant to make the airport more attractive, he said.  “Our job as an airport commission is to provide the finest facilities we can provide to support services for the entire region,” he said.

Key to growth at the airport is the runway extension project, Eckert said.  Airport officials have promoted the longer runway as a draw for larger commercial and private planes, and longer corporate jet flights such as nonstops to Japan or Europe. Work on the first phase of the two-phase federally funded project could begin this fall, airport officials have said.

Also integral to the future is the business park plan, Eckert said. Airport officials have said groundbreaking on the first phase of the project is at least a year off.  If the state legislature could make California more “business friendly,” it would be less difficult to attract commercial activity to the business park, he said.

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  • Name: Chuck Damiano
  • Age: 54
  • Occupation: Engineer, scientist with United Launch Alliance
  • Lived locally: 14 years
  • Family: Not married, no children

In his four years on the board, fiscal responsibility has been a focus for Damiano. With the airport operating in the red, now is not the time to spend money on wants or luxuries, he said. Safety of the flying public is his top priority, said Damiano, a recreational pilot.

He pointed to the district spending $27,000 on a new flight information monitor system for the terminal and passenger waiting area as “more of a nice to have thing” than a necessity.  “I’m trying to use a common sense approach,” said Damiano, the only board member to vote against the purchase in July.

Attracting new airlines to SMX is a “double-edged sword,” Damiano said. There is demand for more flights, but at the same time there are those who complain of the noise, he said. Santa Maria has a more attractive terminal, but Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo have the demographics airlines look for, such as per capita income, he said. It will be tough, but not impossible to bring in a new airline, he said.  An expanded runway will be a big help in attracting larger planes, he said.

The business park plan was a good idea two decades ago, however, there are many empty industrial and office spaces throughout Santa Maria that can’t attract tenants.

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  • Name: Girard (Geoff) Brenneman
  • Age: 61
  • Occupation: Dentist and businessman
  • Lived locally: 30 years
  • Family: Married 15 years, four children

Bringing back a common sense approach to the board is what has inspired Brenneman to make a second bid for a board seat. In 2008, he finished fourth out of four candidates.

Government bureaucrats, whether in Sacramento, Washington, D.C., or Santa Maria have lost touch with the budget process, he said.   “If you don’t have funds, you don’t spend money,” he said.  Brenneman said he believes in accountability and stewardship of other’s money.  Although the airport continues to operate in the red, its budget shortfall has dwindled over the years.

Taking into account operating revenues and expenses plus non-operating revenues and expenses, and all capital projects and improvements, the overall deficit was projected at $280,004 for the 2010-11 budget year. Reserves are being used to cover the deficit.  To get into the black, Brenneman said he would bring his small businessman’s perspective to the board if elected.

Every effort should be exhausted to bring a new airline into the airport, Brenneman said, however it should be done with a sensible approach.

A pilot for 40 years and an aircraft owner for 10 years, Brenneman is fully supportive of the runway extension and upgrades to the Instrument Landing System, part of the runway project, as major safety enhancements for pilots and passengers. 

The business park plan might have been feasible 10 to 15 years ago, however, it is not at the present, he said.  Airport property that can generate revenue and jobs should be utilized, but there needs to be an interested business lined up first, he said.

Posted: Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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