Dodging Public Record Requests
By Raymond Bender
Four months ago, San Marcos and Carlsbad residents asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to produce records related to the expansion of McClellan-Palomar (Palomar) Airport in Carlsbad. The FAA replied: Sure, just pay $545 to $745 so the FAA can retrieve them.
Did the FAA follow the law, its own regulations, or common sense?
Some Background: The Palomar Airport Expansion
For six years, the county of San Diego — which owns and operates the Palomar Airport — has been studying how to expand the Palomar runway from 4,900 feet to 5,700 feet. In a few months, the county will release its 2017-2037 Palomar Master Plan (PMP) and PMP Environmental Impact Report.
The PMP has three main project elements:
- Replace the west-end Palomar 300-foot runway safety area with an engineered system to increase safety;
- Extend the east-end runway up to 800 feet starting with a 200-foot initial increment;
- Then in about 15 years, move the entire runway about 125 feet north.
The county would build the runway east-end extension by placing hundreds of piles, each 15 to 35 feet in length, through an on-airport landfill that the county created. The county would drill hundreds of holes through buried trash that was likely converted to hazardous waste in the mid-2000s when the underground landfill experienced a six-month fire, snuffed out by county injecting gas and grout into the fire.
Without its self-created landfill, an 800-foot runway extension would cost about $5 million to $8 million. Because of the need for the pilings, the cost will be about ten times as high. Without a solid runway extension deck supported by piles, landfill-ongoing-subsidence would ripple an on-grade runway extension. A fun thrill ride. Not so good for aircraft flights.
Paying the Piper: FAA Can you Spare $50 to $70 Million?
Local airports rely on FAA grants to expand. The FAA will pay up to 90 percent of the cost of qualifying projects. Since the 1950s, when Palomar first began operations in Carlsbad, the county has received more than $30 million in FAA grants.
Qualifying projects must meet several requirements — two especially important ones. The project cost must be reasonable, and the FAA must examine an airport’s historical record to assure the airport has been complying with grant conditions.
An objective analysis of Palomar expansion would say that the county should not receive more grant funds if the county failed to comply with the FAA grant conditions, which have existed for the last 50 years. Why should the FAA help fund a $50 million runway extension that should cost only $5 million because the county filled airport canyons with trash during airport operations. FAA grant conditions require airports to use their land only for airport operations, not other activities beneficial to the county.
Congressional Concerns About Federal Improper Payments
In 2010, Congress adopted the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act to reign in questionable federal expenditures. Partly to respond to Congressional concerns, the FAA updated its Airport Improvement Program (AIP) Grant Oversight Risk Model Policy, available here. .
Under this policy — as part of its analysis of local airport requests for FAA monies — the FAA must determine whether the requesting airport has complied with its grant conditions. In fact, the policy requires the FAA to issue a scorecard for each requesting airport. The scorecard in part reflects how well the airport has complied with past grants.
In short, when the FAA in December 2016 received the county of San Diego’s request for Palomar planning funds, the FAA was supposed to determine prior county grant compliance. The only way to do this was to gather the records for past grants and rate the county’s compliance.
The June 2017 FOIA Request to the FAA for FAA-Palomar Grant Records
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requires federal agencies to produce non-exempt records requested by the public. But the public must first pay. Pay the FAA to locate the records. Pay the FAA to copy the records requested after review. Unless the request qualifies for a fee waiver.
Records requested and distributed to the public to benefit a significant public interest qualify for a fee waiver and/or reduction.
The FOIA request letter noted above requested a waiver because the records relate to an ongoing project (massive Palomar expansion) and a county request for millions in FAA grants, which will drastically determine the amount of traffic, pollution, and noise that Palomar Airport generates.
The FAA response was swift: pay $545 to $745 so the FAA can retrieve its electronic files. No fee waiver or reduction applies. The residents who requested the FOIA are awaiting Washington’s decision on the appeal of the fee waiver denial — already more than a month beyond the FAA’s statutory response time.
Meanwhile, a simple question: Does the FAA fee waiver denial amount to an admission that the FAA does not comply with its own regulation to review local airport sponsor compliance?
If the FAA Western Pacific Region in Lawndale were doing its job, it would already have all the records related to Palomar FAA grants on its desks. No search for the request would be needed.