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U.S. District Court Judge Dismisses Brown Act Lawsuit Challenging Closure of Santa Monica Airport
By Niki Cervantes
December 19, 2017 -- A U.S. District Court judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit which alleged the surprise consent decree announced almost a year ago to close Santa Monica Airport by 2028 was illegal because the City violated California’s open meetings, or “sunshine,” law, the City announced.
The suit was originally filed in May in Los Angeles Superior Court by a pilot and local student pilot and sought to block both the temporary closure to aircraft of SMO (now underway) while its runway is shortened and the permanent shuttering of the airport by December 31 of 2028.
“Today’s ruling by Judge Philip S. Gutierrez dismisses all of the plaintiffs’ claims and closes the case,” City officials said in a statement.
“In his order, Judge Gutierrez affirmed a state court's ruling that the City followed the requirements of the Brown Act when it entered the Consent Decree; and he held that Public Utilities Code provisions raised by the plaintiffs did not apply,” the statement said.
The suit specifically targeted the manner in which the consent decree between the City and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was reached and then announced after a rare Saturday meeting of the council ("City, FAA Agree to Close Santa Monica Airport in 2028," January 28, 2017).
Plaintiffs James Babinksi and Kate Scott alleged “secret” meetings and closed-door discussion between the council, City lawyers and other staff and the FAA revealed a “lack of compliance with the The Brown Act."
The State open meetings law, they said, is meant to safeguard the public’s right to know in advance, attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies in California, including city councils.
Adopted in 1950s, it was a reaction to worries that informal and undisclosed meetings of government officials were being held to avoid public scrutiny, although issues such as hiring and litigation are exempted and closed to the public.
Although talks between the City and FAA about the decree were kept under the public radar at the time, Mayor Ted Winterer said Monday’s ruling reaffirmed the City had done the right thing in reaching the agreement.
“This ruling reaffirms the validity of the historic agreement between the City of Santa Monica and the FAA, entered as a Consent Decree by the U.S. District Court,” Winterer said.
“Reducing flights by large jets will improve the lives our residents and neighbors living adjacent to SMO. This is another victory for Santa Monica,” he said.
The plaintiffs were not immediately available for comment.
This October, a Superior Court judge granted a temporary restraining order sought by the plaintiffs to halt the shortening of the runway as work was about to begin. was about to begin ("Temporary Restraining Order Halts Start of Runway Reduction at Santa Monica Airport," October 10, 2017).
The order was subsequently lifted and plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction denied ("Santa Monica Airport Cleared for Runway Reduction," October 18, 2017).
SMO is temporarily closed to all aircraft until its reduction in length, from nearly 5,000 feet to 3,500 feet, is completed on December 24 ("Santa Monica Airport Starts Ten-Day Closure to Aircraft for Runway Shortening," December 15, 2017).
Shortening the runway is meant to ward off some of SMO’s traffic by chartered jets, which has been rising and is key to the long campaign by surrounding neighborhoods to shutter the entire facility to aircraft.
The decree cleared the way for the runway reduction, City actions to take over aviation-support services and SMO’s total closure in 12 years ("Santa Monica Airport Agreement Clears Runway of Mounting Litigation Costs," January 31, 2017).
It also ended years of ligation between the City, which owns the 272-acre airport, and the FAA, which oversees the nation’s airports.
Since announcement of the consent decree, the aviation community has stepped-up its fight to keep SMO open, including the Brown Act lawsuit and other litigation.
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