JANUARY 31, 2001
ORANGE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Orange County has lost its legal ace for future courtroom battles involving its controversial plan to build a commercial airport at the retired El Toro Marine base. Longtime county aviation attorney Michael Gatzke can no longer handle litigation over the El Toro plan without picking up another -- seemingly unattainable -- vote from the county board of supervisors, according to a court settlement announced Tuesday.
Anti-airport forces quickly seized the development as a much-needed win in the long fight over whether the airport, authorized by voters in 1994, will be built. Last month, a judge struck down a local ballot measure they hoped would stop its construction.
The settlement ends a lawsuit filed by airport foes, who maintained that supervisors broke the law by hiring an outside attorney on a 3-2 vote. State law, they argued, required four of the five supervisors to vote for the hiring.
"The county has been put on notice that they can't bend or break the rules because it suits their agenda on El Toro," said Meg Waters, a spokeswoman for the El Toro Reuse Planning Authority, a nine-city anti-airport coalition that brought the suit. "Three supervisors seem to think they can do anything they want, even when the law says they can't, and they got caught," said Leonard Kranser, who operates an anti-airport Web site.
Neither county officials nor Gatzke admit wrongdoing in the settlement.
The county will examine its handling of future lawsuits on "an individual basis," Deputy County Counsel Don Rubin said Tuesday. Gatzke has handled airport litigation for the county for more than three decades. He was not available for comment Tuesday.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who questioned Gatzke's hiring in 1998, said county officials purposely manipulated the process.
County attorneys had insisted Gatzke could handle El Toro lawsuits as an extension of his John Wayne Airport contract. State law and a 1991 attorney general's opinion state that counties must approve hiring outside counsel by a two-thirds vote and that it must be done on a case-by-case basis.
Some airport foes weren't happy Tuesday with the decision to settle, saying Gatzke and the county should have admitted they violated the law.
Gatzke has defended the county against El Toro lawsuits for the past four years, including one against its earlier environmental review of the project. A San Diego County judge twice sent the review back to county planners to fix and finally accepted it earlier this month. Gatzke has earned more than $2 million for his efforts.
Under the settlement, Gatzke must reimburse $10,000 in "taxable costs" to the El Toro coalition. The group also is allowed to seek $250,000 in attorney's fees.
Source: Los Angles Times