Making Scents at SFO

Bad stuff's hitting the fan out at the airport. Can mayoral confidante Eleanor Johns help keep the smell down?

On Thursday, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown tapped Eleanor Johns, a woman long known for handling Brown's personal, financial, and political affairs, to serve on the city's Airport Commission. Since she began working as a legal aide at Brown's private law firm in the mid-1970s, Johns has served as a sort of financial valet for the politician. During the mid-'80s she managed the finances of various Brown-controlled campaign committees while simultaneously drawing a small fee from Brown's private law firm to manage his personal finances. She served as campaign treasurer during a Brown mayoral run. And in 1999, when SF Weekly reporter Peter Byrne asked an attorney who had arranged a real estate partnership about Brown's stake in the venture, the attorney said he usually spoke with Eleanor Johns, not Brown, about the mayor's financial affairs.

"She's the sort of insider who's so far inside, nobody ever sees her," one city staffer noted last week.

In a statement to the Board of Supervisors, Brown explained the appointment by attaching a résumé citing Johns' years of service as his aide and saying that she "will make a valuable contribution to the Airport Commission." So it's not been made crystal clear why, precisely, Willie Brown appointed his personal assistant of 25 years to the Airport Commission.

Still, I have my ideas, and they involve long-standing mismanagement at the airport that may soon become much more obvious to the general public.

A recent management audit by the city budget analyst reveals troubling problems in the way the airport awards consulting contracts. A lawsuit by the City Attorney's Office regarding alleged overbilling of SFO by construction giant Tutor-Saliba Corp. may well produce revelations that further question the airport's contracting and management practices. And in Honduras, a new lawsuit connected to the business activities of SFO officials there suggests little but further trouble.

As the airport's management problems become ever more apparent, its overall financial situation will very likely continue to deteriorate; war, terrorism, SARS, and general economic malaise have deeply cut into air travel, sharply reducing airport income well into the foreseeable future. All about the San Francisco airport wafts the smell of shit hitting the fan. And given that a small group of Brown's top-level airport officials has, for far too long, seemed to face no repercussions for apparent management problems, the smell is oddly sweet.

It'll be interesting to see if Ms. Johns' brand of air freshener works in her new environment.

If you're looking for a perfect place to hear yourself think, you might stop by SFO's new, $2.1 billion international terminal. It's a huge public space, quiet, with ceilings high enough to host a weather system. Its halls are adorned with eclectic pieces of valuable art. There are half a dozen restaurants at hand, yet no lines anywhere. And the air -- ah, the air -- is crisp and infused with the sweet, musty, rejuvenating scent of Schadenfreude.

After years of economic boom, during which airport managers appeared invulnerable to criticism for cost overruns, inappropriate contracting practices, opulent expense accounts, and shady public-private business deals, I'm smelling comeuppance in the air. All of a sudden, it seems, there isn't enough money to paper over the waste and impropriety.

No matter how one looks at it, San Francisco's colossal, $600 million-per-year airport appears to be in bad shape.

According to a recent report by airport consultants John F. Brown Co., passenger traffic at the airport will shrink by 25 percent next year. The same report says traffic may return to previous levels by 2008 -- an estimate based on guesses regarding economic recovery, terrorism, SARS, how anchor tenant United Airlines handles its ongoing bankruptcy, and whether or not airport management takes seriously the consultants' warnings about high costs. A slide-show presentation prepared for senior airport managers might just as easily have been titled "You're Running the Airport Into the Ground."

One slide in the presentation, titled "NEED FOR ACTION: SFO Cost Structure Is Too High," detailed, in language apparently meant for people unfamiliar with sound management principles, why it's a bad thing for SFO to spend far more money per passenger than any other airport in the region. Overspending "reduces flexibility to respond to adverse situations (war, terror, earthquake, airline bankruptcy), jeopardizes ability to finance future development, and is inconsistent with Management goals, values and vision for the Airport," the presentation said. (In case you wondered: John F. Brown Co. billed $7 million for its efforts to help reduce costs at the airport.)

Another report -- a management audit of the airport's Airfield Development Bureau, the name given the war room that Willie Brown set up to push through a $3.5 billion plan to expand SFO's runways -- depicts management practices seemingly tailor-made for cost inflation of the very type the John F. Brown Co. warns against.

The audit, which focuses on $89 million in bureau contracts, was released last week by Board of Supervisors Budget Analyst Harvey Rose. It once again puts on display the high-living consultants the airport's been known for: a $799.55 restaurant tab here, a $4,252 SFO-Dulles plane ticket there. And then there's that $4,686.60 monthly phone bill -- for one person.

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