Three San Jose airport commissioners leave, citing lack of influence
Mineta San Jose International Airport is pictured (courtesy of Mineta San Jose International Airport).

Three San Jose airport commissioners won’t reapply for their positions, claiming that top airport and city officials shunned their feedback on a high-profile policy decision to raise building heights near Silicon Valley’s downtown airport.

The terms of Commissioners Raymond Greenlee, Tom Cruz and Mark Schmidt are expiring in June. Commissioners typically get re-appointed with little fanfare. But the trio decided not to come back, citing concerns about being ignored and having no say over major decisions affecting the Mineta San Jose International Airport.

One commissioner said the commission is pointless because its input is rarely solicited or considered by lawmakers, and it’s merely “window dressing” — a way to shield officials from resident complaints over aircraft noise.

“The city staff and the mayor work directly with airport staff and avoid asking for opinions of the Airport Commission,” said Greenlee, who’s also a commercial airline pilot. “The commission has turned into window dressing for the City Council, so they can say they have an Airport Commission, but they don’t solicit nor do they value our opinion. We don’t have a say, we don’t have veto power – I’m not even sure why we have an Airport Commission if the recommendations and opinions aren’t valued.”

Airport leaders, however, say they involved commissioners in the policy discussions about raising building heights and encouraged a robust debate.

Airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes said airport officials held two special meetings in January to discuss the plan to raise building heights in downtown San Jose. As a result of those meetings, Barnes said, the commissioners presented their recommendations to lawmakers during committee and council meetings, as well as private meetings.

And minutes from one of those two special meetings shows Schmidt and Cruz were absent.

“We believe the Commissioners who chose to attend the individual meetings and panels had the opportunity to share their input both with Airport leadership and directly with Council, participate in the related discussions, and listen to the study’s metrics-focused results taken from many City and Airport stakeholders’ input,” Barnes said.

The debate over building taller skyscrapers in San Jose exploded in January after airport officials and city leaders recommended raising building heights by up to 35 feet in the downtown core and up to 137 feet in the Diridon Station area. Five of the commissioners opposed the plan, going against city staff and airport leaders.

While the new height limits met FAA standards, a majority of airport commissioners worried international carriers would leave the airport because taller buildings would force them to reduce weight on their aircraft to pull off emergency landings in certain weather conditions. They’d likely be forced to remove passengers, resulting in economic losses to the airlines and the possibility of canceled routes to San Jose.

Following an educational forum on the topic hosted by this news organization, the City Council unanimously approved increasing building heights in March.

But the elephant in the room was Google. The decision to build taller came after the tech giant announced plans to develop a mega-campus in downtown San Jose, though city leaders said they’d been eyeing a building height increase for years.

Greenlee said San Jose airport officials studied raising height limits in downtown more than a decade ago, but decided against it because of detrimental impacts on airlines.

“They did the exact same study in 2007 and came up with a completely different recommendation,” Greenlee said. “And now that Google is moving in and everyone has big dollar signs in front of their eyes, airport staff came up with completely different recommendations.”

While Greenlee said his decision not to reapply for his position was also influenced by plans to move out of the country, the debate over building heights was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Schmidt, who served on the commission for four years, agreed.

“Disillusioned is one way to put it,” Schmidt said in an interview. “If they’re not going to listen to us on this topic — and I don’t know if I could ever have another topic as important as this one — why am I spending my time in this capacity? There’s a saying, ‘Don’t ask the question you don’t want the answer to.’ They were actively avoiding a robust conversation on the topic.”

Airport Commission Chair Dan Connolly, who also opposed building taller in downtown, said he’s disappointed to see three of his colleagues go.

“I’m not sure that the city values the commission system on critical issues,” Connolly said.

But Barnes said roughly half of the 11-member Airport Commission overturns every two years. The commission currently has five vacancies, according to the City Clerk’s website. While the commission is an advisory board, it is meant to study policies and provide “expert advice” to lawmakers.

“We wish Commissioners Cruz, Greenlee and Schmidt well in their future endeavors,” Barnes added. “They have served us well and we thank them for their service to the Airport and the San Jose community.”

Contact Ramona Giwargis at ramona@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

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