Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert speaking about the city's consent decree before the airport advisory commission. Photos: Jason Ruiz
Long Beach City Prosecutor Doug Haubert has been formally asked by the city’s airport advisory commission to take another look at how consent decree violations incurred by JetBlue, and the penalties paid by the airline, are divvied up.
Currently the fines, which were recently raised to a flat rate of $6,000 per violation, go to the Long Beach Public Library Foundation—a nonprofit that then disperses the funds to the Long Beach Public Library System—as a condition of the agreement with the airline that keeps its continual violations of the noise curfew at the airport out of the courtroom. The deal was originally struck by his predecessor in 2003 but was recently renewed, with increased fines, by Haubert.
The pace at which JetBlue has racked up fines subject to the consent decree this year has put the airline on pace to pay out over $1 million to the library foundation by December. Haubert, who was on hand at the the airport advisory commission’s Thursday meeting to present how the consent decree functions and the potential feasibility of redirecting the fine money, said his decision earlier this year to raise the fines assessed to JetBlue was based on a pattern of increased violations.
Haubert said that he had witnessed a general downward trend since he took office as city prosecutor, but a troubling trend beginning in 2013 has seen an increase nearly every quarter in consent decree violations. The last 12-month period, he said, is the worst in terms of the number of violations since the decree was created in 2003.
“In fact, if you look at quarter one of 2017 and quarter two of 2017, if you add those two quarters up, that is very close to the highest year, the highest four-quarter period that JetBlue had ever had,” Haubert said. “In fact, if you look at the last four quarters, that is higher than any other four-quarter period since the consent decree began.”
A page from Haubert's presentation showing the increase in consent decree violations by quarter since the beginning of 2013.
With those increasing violations come increasing funds derived from fines.
The commission voted 3-2 Thursday to ask Haubert to consider a new model in which the library foundation would receive the first $500,000 in any given year from the consent decree fines with the remainder to be given to another area of public good which could include the library and noise mediation for homes impacted by. This could include the costly process of retrofitting homes with windows and insulation more resilient to the decibel levels produced at the airport.
Three of the eight commissioners were absent for the vote leaving only chair Wayne Chaney Sr. and Vice Chair Jeff Anderson as the two dissenting votes.
“We have it [the fine money] going to an organization that’s providing a safe place for kids to get tutoring, books, pay their bills in a safe environment, a productive environment, for me, it would be hard to take away,” Chaney Sr. said. “This is an organization that doesn’t always get recognized for the work that they’re doing. They’re doing great work for kids you don’t see, in another part of town that really don’t have options. They are my heroes.”
A large contingent of the Long Beach Public Library Foundation was on hand to defend the practice of the foundation receiving the consent decree violation fees. The funds go toward supporting the library system’s ability to purchase books and other educational materials with the fees collected this year currently on pace to double—about $680,000 of the library’s $12 million budget goes toward materials—what the fiscal budget has allocated for those same services at the city libraries.
The foundation’s board of directors president J.P. Shotwell recounted how over the past 12 years the foundation has provided over $20 million to Long Beach libraries with the community benefitting from the services deriving their funds from the foundation. He asked the commission not to vote in favor of a resolution that could see these critical funds redirected elsewhere in the city.
“The value of the materials and the services these funds support are part of why our city’s libraries were awarded recently the national medal for museum and library sciences, which is one of the most prestigious awards of its kind,” Shotwell said. “In supporting our libraries in this matter we’ve allowed it to continue to provide these types of services to the communities of Long Beach.”
While some members of the public were interested in seeing the money go toward noise mitigation and the retrofitting of houses, former Long Beach City Councilwoman Rae Gabelich cautioned that the Federal Aviation Administration has strict guidelines for which homes qualify and noted that those around the airport that do qualify have already been addressed. The commission’s continued talk of noise mitigation was simply “getting people’s hopes up” she said.
Others, though, were less concerned with getting the money redirected from the library foundation and more interested in a model that would see JetBlue stop taking off early and landing late. As one woman put it “Some families have a swear jar, the point isn’t to end up with a jar full of money, it’s to have a family that doesn’t swear.”
In his closing statements, Haubert hinted that the destination of the funds may not change anyway. He thanked the public for turning out for the meeting and adding their voice to the conversation and the commission for asking him to explain his process, something his predecessor did not do when crafting the original consent decree. However, Haubert said ultimately the decision rests with him and his office and it could take a lot to sway his belief that the money is currently going to the right place.
“At the end of the day I have to make a decision and I’m going to make that decision on the equitable considerations and the finite amount of money that exists and the purpose that it’s been allocated to for all these years,” Haubert said. “It would have to be something significantly to change in my mind whether or not that’s an appropriate allocation.”