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A vacancy on the board of the Monterey Peninsula Airport District leads to political drama.

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Light industrial area

Redevelopment of this light industrial area on the northeast side of the Monterey Regional Airport’s property, which was built by the military, is still on the table.

David Schmalz here, with more news to report about the Monterey Regional Airport. 

I wrote about the airport in this week’s print issue of the Weekly, specifically about how it recently reached a legal settlement with Monterey that promises no future expansion of its commercial operations that would increase traffic on Monterey’s Airport Road, which goes through the Casanova Oak Knolls neighborhood. But that’s not all that’s been happening (or not happening, as the case may be) at MRY.

On Tuesday, May 24, the Monterey Peninsula Airport District board—which oversees the operations of the airport—interviewed seven candidates for a board position that was recently vacated by Gary Cursio, who moved out of the district. 

The airport board has mostly flown under the radar in years past, but it’s recently drawn an increasing amount of attention from Del Rey Oaks and Monterey residents concerned about the traffic implications of a commercial expansion on the airport’s north side. It’s also come under increased scrutiny because board member Mary Ann Leffel is a special district appointee to the board of the Local Agency Formation Commission of Monterey County, where she recently voted against allowing the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District to buy out Cal Am’s local water system, which nearly 56-percent of voters in the district approved in a 2018 ballot measure. That LAFCO vote inspired an effort by voters to recall her from her from her airport board seat, to which she is elected.

It’s possible that one of these reasons explains why this mostly obscure board suddenly has seven applicants for a vacant seat that will expire in November. That seems like a lot of interest in an airport for a six-month position.

Of the applicants, it appears the board has narrowed their top choices down to two. One is Dino Pick, a retired Army colonel and former commandant of the Defense Language Institute, and the former Del Rey Oaks city manager who now runs international graduate programs at the Naval Postgraduate School. Pick dealt with the airport’s staff extensively in his time in Del Rey Oaks, and was instrumental in merging their police departments in 2018. He was also caught up in some earlier drama surrounding the alignment of the proposed airport road.

The other apparent finalist is Gabriella Schlesinger-James, a marketing and communications coordinator with United Way Monterey County who lives in Division 3—Leffel’s division. 

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The board didn’t ultimately decide on a candidate on Tuesday, in part because board vice chair LisAnne Sawhney had to leave the meeting early before a vote was taken. A motion to appoint Pick failed 2-1, with board member Bill Sabo dissenting, and Sabo’s motion to appoint Schlesinger-James failed in a 1-2 vote (three yes votes are required to make an appointment). 

The board will return to the appointment discussion on June 1 so Sawhney can get more information about the candidates. 

Again, this appointment will only run through the fall. Come November, two divisions, will be up for reelection: Division 4—Pacific Grove and parts of Monterey—and Division 5, roughly Pebble Beach and the Carmel area. The Division 4 seat is currently held by Carl Miller, the board chair, and none of the current board members live in Division 5. The seat up for appointment is a remnant of at-large elections, but the district is transitioning away from that model. That means whoever the board appoints to the seat will be off the board then unless they run, and win, in either divisions 4 or 5.

But between now and then, there’s six months for this at-large candidate to serve. That seven candidates have thrown their hat in the ring is striking, and proof-positive that when it comes to the airport district, a lot more people are paying attention.

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