Issue to be discussed at future meeting
By Victoria Howell
In a controversial move, the Ravalli County Commissioners voted unanimously on April 29 to replace two earlier resolutions regarding governance of the county airport with a new resolution. According to Commission Chair J.R. Iman, the new resolution clarifies the duties and responsibilities of the volunteer Airport Board, which is a purely advisory entity that makes recommendations to the County Commissioners for implementation. However, newly-adopted Resolution 2676, which replaces Resolutions 1244 and 2192, makes no mention of an agreement former commissioners made with the group ICAARE (Informing Citizens Against Runway Expansion) to send any runway extension plans to a public vote before proceeding. That agreement was attached to Resolution 1244. Commissioners did agree at Friday’s meeting, however, to discuss the dropped agreement at a meeting scheduled for May 26.
The public vote on airport expansion is significant in light of the fact that improvements at the airport are currently under consideration. The previous commission approved an Environmental Assessment in 2010 which recommended certain improvements at the airport known as Alternative 2A. In brief, this FAA-approved alternative includes replacing the current runway with a new one further north, and adding more hangar and tie-down space. Under Resolution 1244, this alternative would not require a vote because the runway was not being extended. But commissioners could opt for a runway extension and, without the agreement that was part of 1244, the public would no longer be able to vote on the proposal.
Resolution 1244, passed in 2001, established the county’s Airport Board and outlined the duties and responsibilities of board members as well as the duties and responsibilities of the county commissioners in regard to the county airport. The public’s right to vote was added to 1244 after intense negotiations between the commissioners and members of ICAARE. Resolution 2192, passed in 2007, amended the previous resolution to include the requirement that one member of the seven-member board come from each of the Commissioner Districts and made all the positions at-large positions.
Friday’s meeting drew a full house, with a number of people, including Commissioner Greg Chilcott, expressing disappointment that the Commissioners would drop from the new resolution the language that calls for a public vote in any plan to extend the runway.
“The right to vote has been a diverse issue,” said Chilcott. “As I understand it, in 2001 citizens gathered signatures demanding a right to vote, 6000 to 7000 names. The commissioners at the time agreed to put any major extension/expansion of the airport on the ballot. So the petitioners withdrew their ballot issue attempt. And the agreement was attached to Resolution 1244. I think it’s wrong to unilaterally remove that agreement.”
But Commissioner Ron Stoltz said that the new resolution contained the correct language for defining an airport advisory board and it was important to stick with it. “We just keep passing the buck,” said Stoltz, “and at some point the FAA will shut the airport down.”
Commissioner Suzy Foss concurred. “This combines 1244 and 2192. This will work the best – it’s a good, workable document.”
“To me ‘expanding’ means enlarging the mass of the airport,” countered Chilcott. “People who brought the petition earlier have not challenged anything else about the airport. To throw the whole thing out violates a moral agreement we have with the citizens.”
“I’ve been a huge advocate of the right to vote, “ said Foss, “but all we have on this is hearsay… When the economy turns around, we need to be positioned to take advantage of opportunities. We are a dangerous airport at this moment. We are getting close to having our airport shut down. I stand behind this resolution.”
Referring to the public vote language in Resolution 1244, Iman said, “Without any physical information, I cannot know why the votes were cast in the past. But a resolution creates a direction for the county. I believe the extraneous information that was amended onto 1244 should have been handled separately.” He noted that the “public vote” language had been dropped on the advice of legal counsel.
Before the commissioners voted to adopt the new resolution, they listened to comments from the public, and also responded directly to some remarks.
“Three of you ran on the issue of property rights and the public’s right to vote,” said Dennis Moore, a member of ICAARE. “Now you’re going against property rights.”
“The safety of our citizens is paramount,” said Foss. “We didn’t vote on the Hwy 93 expansion. It’s just something that must be done.”
“The most current public input was last November,” said Doug MacLaren. “The three commissioners that won made it very clear what their position was on the airport. To have it go to a vote again would be shirking their public duty.”
George Marshall, a member of the Airport Board, concurred. “You were elected to represent the public and that’s what you’re doing now.”
“Ten years ago we gathered 6500 signatures,” said Phyllis Bookbinder, an ICAARE member. “That’s a lot. Two Republicans and a Democrat promised us we would have a right to vote. This (agreement) doesn’t obstruct you. This enhances your ability.”
When Airport Board member Scott Weyl suggested that airport issues should have been brought to the Airport Board first, Moore responded that the board at the time was “biased – it was all pilots. No adjacent landowners were on the board.”
Bookbinder requested that the commissioners consider crafting another document about the public’s right to vote on airport expansion.
“The citizens did get a petition together and the commissioners said they would memorialize that in an agreement,” reiterated Chilcott. “I think we have a moral obligation to honor this. People want the right to vote. I support this document but I would advocate we include a better written (public voting option) from the amended 1244.”
However, the commission declined to add back any language about a public vote and the new Resolution 2676 passed unanimously (Kanenwisher was absent) with some minor changes.
Commissioners agreed to revisit the airport voting issue at a meeting on May 26 at 1:30 p.m.