Orange County counters airport

Orange County, the nation's fastest-growing county in the 1980s, became California's new tech front in the '90s.

Client: Citizens for Safe and Healthy Communities (South Orange County, CA)
PR Team: Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger and Creative Strategies (San Diego)
Campaign: Passage of Orange County Safe and Healthy Communities Initiative (Measure F)
Time Frame: Late 1997 to March 2000
Budget: $3.7 million (60% for PR and public affairs, the rest for advertising and collateral materials)

Orange County, the nation's fastest-growing county in the 1980s, became California's new tech front in the '90s. One result was a demand by some residents and politicians for a new airport. But many of those who lived in nearby suburbs opposed the proposal, dreading the inevitable noise and other environmental fallout.

The debate had previously played out in two highly contentious ballot measures, in both of which voters expressed support for an airport. A three-member majority of the County Board of Supervisors also supported the project.

In 1997, with a final decision nearing on how the county would convert the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station into an international airport, a coalition of cities retained Stoorza, Ziegaus & Metzger to help fight the plan. The agency's mission: to provide strategic counsel, media relations and community-outreach support.

The El Toro Re-Use Planning Authority (ETRPA), a joint-powers agency covering cities in South Orange County opposed to the airport plan, also asked the agency to develop public information collateral materials.

When it became clear in late 1998 that airport opponents would again pursue a ballot initiative, Stoorza brought in Campaign Strategies Inc.

(CSI), its political consulting affiliate, to advise ETRPA. CSI encouraged ETRPA to draft an initiative, called Measure F, that proposed an alternative 'Millennium Plan,' including greenspace, an office park and hous- ing.

Stoorza and CSI encouraged initiative proponents to build a broad base of support and to develop messages that were appealing to voters outside the South County base.

CSI helped hold together a fractious coalition of citizen groups, keeping the campaign focused on a few clear objectives. The goal was to pass Measure F by making all residents of Orange County more aware of the initiative and getting them more involved in the planning process.

The group used two winning messages: 1) there was already an existing airport (John Wayne) in Orange County, and people there still like to use LAX; and 2) the aversion to added noise from the proposed airport.

CSI president Tom Shepard cites two key aspects of the campaign: 1) a strong volunteer base that collected a record 192,000 signatures to qualify the initiative and raised over $1.5 million in private contributions; and 2) disciplined management that kept the debate focused on research-derived message points.

'This foundation enabled us to run a very aggressive direct mail campaign,' Shepard says. 'It carried our messages to voters throughout the county, making it possible for us to effectively respond to scare tactics by the opposition claiming the initiative would result in having criminals released from overcrowded jails terrorizing local residents. It also succeeded in changing the editorial position of the county's major daily newspaper, the Orange County Register, from opposition to support for the initiative.'

In the final days, polling showed the initiative barely over 50%. But on March 7, 2000, voters favored it by a wide margin. On April 6 the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to suspend all expenditures related to airport development. 'Even with airport supporters spending millions to defeat Measure F, the campaign scored a remarkable 67% to 33% victory that political observers say will fundamentally reshape Orange County politics,' Shepard says.

Airport supporters have filed suit to overturn the vote and are looking to increase political pressure on the board for maintaining grass-roots support in anti- cipation of extended litigation.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in