The written result of an investigation aimed at examining just how the city managed to let an unsafe building rise near Montgomery Field appears to have badly mistold parts of the story.
The section in question discusses how San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and his team tried to negotiate compromises with the Federal Aviation Administration to eliminate the hazard caused by the 180-foot Sunroad Centrum building. In May, Sanders ordered his chief operating officer at the time, retired Admiral Ronne Froman, to look into the city's mishandling of the affair. Froman subsequently left city employ, and the mayor handed off the investigation to his chief of ethics and integrity, Jo Anne SawyerKnoll. The report was released on July 19. Sanders told the press he received it the same day it was released to the public.
Perhaps that explains why this part of the story is so garbled. The report breaks negotiations with the FAA into two proposed solutions to the Sunroad problem. Solution No. 1 involved lowering the building to 163 feet, except for an equipment enclosure that would still top out at 180 feet, and then changing the Montgomery Field flight path from a northern approach to a southern approach. Solution No. 2 involved lowering the height of the building to 166 feet, with no rerouting of aircraft. According to the report, Sanders rejected Solution No. 1 when he learned it would force planes to fly low over Serra Mesa. The report says Sanders rejected this solution out of hand, and then sent Real Estate Assets Department director Jim Barwick and Airport Authority executive-on-loan Ted Sexton to Texas to meet with FAA officials and discuss solution No. 2. City Attorney Mike Aguirre then sent a letter to the FAA insisting on the 160 feet, effectively killing negotiations, the report says.
That all sounds good, except the time line stopped making sense when a tipster sent CityBeat a letter, dated May 18, written on Jerry Sanders' stationary and signed by the mayor, proposing Solution No. 1, with the southern approach. So, if he rejected the southern approach, why did he send the letter to the FAA? And when did he reject it, since the Texas trip happened on May 22? And making the letter even more suspicious, it was not included among the 56 attachments to the report, and SawyerKnoll told CityBeat she didn't know why not.
Compare that to the version of events conveyed to CityBeat by Deputy Chief Operating Officer Jim Waring, and the version in the report seems hopelessly garbled. The correct sequence of events has Sanders sending the letter with Solution No. 1 to the FAA, then sending Barwick and Sexton to Texas to discuss it with FAA officials. Waring said implementing the southern approach would take the Sunroad building out of the airspace, so the FAA could eliminate the hazard designation.
To test the new flight pattern after their return from Texas, Sexton and Barwick took a plane from Montgomery Field and made the southern approach. At that point, Sexton realized the flight would come in low over Serra Mesa. After he met with Sanders, the mayor rejected Solution No. 1 immediately. Then they came up with Solution No. 2. Sexton and Waring spoke over the phone to FAA officials and found Solution No. 2 was, like Solution No. 1, warmly received. Then came the bit with Aguirre's letter and the killed negotiations. Oy vey.
If you're a bottom-line sort of reader, then the key is understanding that the report said Sexton and Barwick brought a different proposal to Texas than they did. The city sent the two officials to Fort Worth to suggest altering landing routes to accommodate a slightly diminished Sunroad building.
While CityBeat was on the phone with FAA spokesman Ian Gregor trying to work all this out, we asked if the reaction to the city's proposed solutions had been as positive as the report made them out to be. After all, the investigators spoke to 29 city officials, but no one from the FAA or Sunroad.
"I'm not going to address any private conversations, but the FAA would not have reacted warmly to any proposal that left the building above 160 feet," he said. "I've been told that certain people have suggested that the FAA was amenable to various proposals to reduce building height to a level above 160 feet. I can't stress enough, lowering the building height to anything above 160 feet is going to leave in place a hazard to navigation."
He also said the FAA never at any time received an official application for any kind of permanent change to flight paths; Waring said the same thing. Gregor said any kind of proposal made informally through a letter like the one Sanders wrote or the meeting in Texas would be answered with a friendly, "We'll look at it when you send us the application."
So, did Aguirre's letter cause the FAA to reject the city's proposal?
"No. No, no, no. No. No. No," Gregor said. "Any proposal that left the building above the height of 160 feet was deemed a hazard."