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Future of Airport Committee comes up for discussion

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By Pat Hibbs

It was item 8B on the city council agenda for it's Feb. 5 meeting: "Vice President Robinson re: abolishment of the Airport Committee." The notation was read on that date and then the item was tabled until the next meeting at councilman Robinson's request.

Yet the reaction was explosive when the idea was discussed at the Feb. 19 meeting.

In a monotone, councilman Jerry Robinson read his statement justifying the proposed action and making the motion to abolish the committee. Councilman Jake Cason immediately seconded the motion. Council president Debra Jones, who is also chair of the Airport Committee, reacted angrily: "Sounds like sunshine," she said.

Pressed by Cason as to what she meant, Jones stopped short of accusing the two of violating the Sunshine Law, but the argument continued as to whether Cason had had prior knowledge of Robinson's reasoning. Cason said that no, he hadn't, that he'd listened carefully to Robinson's statement, agreed with it and decided to second the motion. Cason called the question on the motion and the vote was 3-2 for abolishment. Councilman Steve Holcomb voted yes, along with Robinson and Cason, and Jones and councilman Cal Byrd (also a member of the airport committee) voted no.

In his presentation, Robinson said that the committee, which, he stressed, is designated as an advisory board only, has "assumed its own identity." He maintained that individual members have had inappropriate discussions with prospective leaseholders, and that "it appears that decisions are made within the committee and/or by members instead of acting as an advisory entity," although the city council has the ultimate decision-making power in all matters related to the airport.

He further contended that the administrative workings of the airport belong, by ordinance, to the Airport Manager (who is, in Williston's case, Jim Coleman, the city manager. Coleman was absent due to illness.) He quoted the city's code of ordinances in relation to the airport manager's scope of authority. He suggested that individual members of the committee refer all administrative questions to the airport manager rather than try to handle them personally.

That, he said, would prevent all airport matters from being brought to the council individually, as they are now, and refer to council only those concerns that require its intervention.

Jones said vehemently that she felt that Coleman was not doing the job properly, that he does not follow through on matters he is asked to address, and that he doesn't handle anything fully. Her reaction to abolishing the airport committee was that it was "absolutely ridiculous."

While members of the audience clamored to be recognized, Jones took another tack, asserting that the committee could not be abolished because it was part of the city charter and thus could be abolished only by charter amendment. When city attorney Norm Fugate disagreed, she asked him to research the matter immediately, only to be told that the committee's establishment and enumeration of powers are part of the city's code, not of its charter.

Members of the airport committee William McGarvey and Earl Ogle addressed the council, noting that none of the members who had voted to abolish the committee had ever been to a meeting of that body and thus had no basis for their opinions of its value. Dave Bibby, assistant manager at the airport, reiterated that sentiment and said that he attends the meetings on his own time.

Major Argy Hager (ret.) rose to say that he has had 40 years experience in aviation and that he thought that the council was acting unprofessionally. (He later apologized for his outburst of temper.)

Byrd said that he'd been involved in the committee since its inception and felt that all of its members worked hard and had the best interests of the city and the airport at heart. Jones added that the Airport Committee had discussed the possibility of abolishment at its previous meeting and that one member had been moved to tears at the thought that the committee might be done away with.

Attorney Fugate explained the process needed to carry the council's wishes forward. An ordinance is required to abrogate that section of the code in which the committee was established. That ordinance would be subject to the usual first and second readings and public comment and then a final vote by the council.

Before council moved on to the next agenda item, councilman Holcomb informed his colleagues that he had voted yes for the measure in order to begin a discussion. He said he knew full well that no final decision could be made at this meeting because of the ordinance requirements, but that he was interested in beginning the debate of the subject.

In the substantive airport issues, considered before the introduction of Robinson's controversial motion, the following decisions were made.

The council was presented with revisions to the standard airport lease agreement. Attorney Fugate noted in a cover memo that some of the changes had been proposed for more than a year but had not been addressed by the Airport Committee. Jones responded by saying that the brevity of the airport committee meetings before they were rescheduled had prevented consideration of the changes. She also said that there had been occasions on which specific items had been considered, but that the text presented to the council at this meeting contained more extensive changes than prior versions.

Fugate explained that he wanted the council to have sufficient time to examine the revisions so that it will be able to consider the Airport Committee's recommendations at its second March meeting.

Council agreed in principle to award the lease on the FBO hangar to David S. Fisher. The current leaseholder, Edd Taylor, is unable to maintain his Airframe and Powerplant operation because of illness.

Jones said that the Airport Committee believed that Fisher was an appropriate tenant, but that there were several requirements yet to be met, including adequate insurance and Fisher's own A&P license. He is currently working under Taylor's license. The committee had recommended that the lease be turned over as is to Fisher on a month-to-month basis, for a limited period of time. Once all requirements are fulfilled, Fisher would be offered a long-term lease, but at the price dictated by Fair Market Value, as required by the FAA. Byrd urged that Fisher be apprised of the cost of the new lease now so that he has an opportunity to decide whether he wishes to pursue the matter. Council agreed.

Ron Combs requested and received permission to sub-lease hangar #19 (formerly the Skydive Williston hangar) to the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform for storage of their banner-towing aircraft. Combs and Fugate had a discussion about the requirements of a sublease, and Fugate was satisfied that Combs had satisfied the city's conditions. The council agreed to reappoint Don Nelson, Debra Jones and Tom Sumpter to their seats on the airport committee.

After the Airport Committee abolishment brouhaha, the tone of the meeting lightened a bit.

Mayor Gerald Hethcoat suggested that the council consider awarding "student of the month" certificates to a representative of each Williston school. He said that attorney Fugate had watched the successful program in Chiefland, where he is also the city attorney, and felt that it would be appropriate in Williston. Fugate said that the parents and the schools appreciate the recognition, and that the awarding of the certificates brings people to council meetings, perhaps engendering an interest in city government.

Fugate's office will provide, at no cost, the materials for the schools to determine each month's recipients, as well as the certificates to be presented by the Mayor.

Cason reminded the council of the Rotary Club Easter Egg Hunt on March 8 at the Johnny T. Henry Celebration Park on NW 1st Avenue.

During the councilors' announcements, Cal Byrd presented his letter of resignation from the council, effective Nov. 17. He will run in the Democratic primary for the county commission seat in district 5 currently held by Danny Stevens.

Asked if he would withdraw his resignation if he lost the election, he said he had no plans to lose, drawing a high five and a laugh from Jerry Robinson (seated next to him), who is running for the seat as a Republican. To top the evening off, Jake Cason donned a Danny Stevens campaign hat, eliciting additional laughter and good will from council and audience alike.

The next council meeting will be held on March 4 at 7 p.m.

in the city council chambers. Public participation is encouraged.