Supervisors change minds, keep TSA screeners at Sacramento airport

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Published: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 - 8:10 am

In an abrupt about-face, Sacramento County has backed away from a controversial plan to jettison its federal airport screeners and replace them with private security company employees.

In a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors decided to withdraw the county's federal request to be allowed to use private screeners at checkpoints in Terminals A and B instead of federal Transportation Security Administration employees.

Until Tuesday, Sacramento had been on track to become the third major airport in the country to participate in a federal opt-out program that would turn checkpoint security over to the private sector. Federal officials were poised to solicit applications from security companies for the Sacramento contract later this month.

The county reversal came amid lobbying from airline flight attendants, local union representatives and other local leaders, including Sacramento Assemblymen Roger Dickinson and Richard Pan – all urging them to stick with TSA.

Pan said the county should at least not make the move before it hires a new county airports director to replace Hardy Acree, who retired last month. County Executive Brad Hudson is expected to name a replacement early this year.

The board initially OK'd the privatization plan last January without public discussion at Acree's request. Acree contended that private screeners could offer more staffing flexibility and likely would provide better customer service.

A recent federal Government Accountability Office report, however, indicated the government has not yet done enough monitoring to determine whether there is a difference between TSA and private security.

Under the federal opt-out program, private screeners would wear TSA uniforms, use TSA equipment, follow TSA protocol and be overseen by a TSA supervisor.

The company and its employees would be paid by the TSA.

The TSA's chief security officer for Sacramento airport, Kimberley Siro, testified Tuesday she is focused on providing staffing flexibility at the Sacramento airport to handle peak flight-hour crowds.

Supervisor Phil Serna opposed the privatization move, cautioning supervisors not to fix what isn't broken.

"I am not persuaded changing the system we have is in the best interest of the county and traveling public," he said.

Supervisor Susan Peters voted to continue the privatization effort.

The 8-year-old opt-out program – called the Screening Partnership Program – has been pushed strongly in recent years by congressional Republicans seeking to reduce the size of the TSA, which they call a bloated bureaucracy.

Richard Bloom, an airport security expert at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said the public-private question may be a tossup, in terms of both cost-effectiveness and performance.

"There is no empirical data in any controlled setting that shows one is necessarily better than the other," Bloom said recently.

San Francisco, Kansas City and more than a dozen smaller airports use private security.

Former airport head Acree previously said he agreed philosophically with that privatization push.

An airport spokeswoman, however, said on Tuesday that officials are focused solely on the best and safest security operations.

"Our primary objective is safety, and then customer service," airport spokeswoman Linda Cutler.

"Based on the relationship we have with (TSA), it sounds like we are going to be moving forward in a very positive way."

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