Broader Airport Authority sought: Bill would dilute mayor’s pull, give board 4 regional slots

Keywords Environment / Government
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A bill in the Legislature seeks to dilute Mayor Bart Peterson’s influence on the city’s airport board by adding four board members, two appointed by neighboring counties and two by the governor.

House Bill 1734 would recast the Indianapolis Airport Authority board with more regional representation and a more bipartisan flavor as development encroaches on the Airport Authority’s smaller, suburban airports and as the board approves contracts for the $974 million terminal project at Indianapolis International Airport.

The bill with significant economic and political implications comes after Republican complaints last fall that it took Peterson, a Democrat, more than two years to fill a vacant Republican seat on the board.

Moreover, former airport director David Roberts last summer alleged in a complaint filed with the state that Peterson’s appointee as board president, Indianapolis attorney Lacy Johnson, sought to drive out airport employees considered “too Republican.”

HB 1734’s sponsor, Republican Robert Behning, said the measure isn’t political but is intended to give more of a voice to surrounding jurisdictions affected by Indianapolis International and its reliever fields.

“[The airport] is a regional economic generator, but [the Airport Authority] needs to have some sensitivity to the people who surround it … . It’s important that people who are affected have a seat at the table,” said Behning, whose district includes parts of Decatur and Wayne townships in Marion County and Plainfield in Hendricks County.

Currently, at least one board member must be appointed from either Wayne or Decatur townships, which are the most affected by Indianapolis International. Hendricks County appoints one board member to represent its interests.

But Behning’s bill, by requiring representation from each county in which the airport owns property, would also give Hamilton and Hancock counties each one appointment.

Currently, those counties name advisory board members who have no voting rights. Nonvoting members “are not as likely to be involved,” Behning said.

Hamilton County is home to the Airport Authority’s Indianapolis Metropolitan Airport, which is being hemmed in by residential and commercial development in Fishers. Tensions between airport and neighbors may also be inevitable at Mount Comfort Airport as residential growth takes off in northwest Hancock County.

Legislators said Morgan County, which is close enough to feel the environmental impact of the airport, could have a voting member, but the bill requires that the airport own property in a county to qualify it for an appointee.

Behning said giving the state two governor-appointed seats is appropriate given the economic stake Indiana has taken in the airport. For example, it provided a chunk of the $300 million in incentives used to lure United Airlines to construct a maintenance base in the 1990s. More recently, the state and city provided bankrupt ATA Holdings Corp. a $15 million loan.

“It’s reconstituting the board so it’s more representative of the people the airport affects … . Up until now, it’s basically been nothing more than Marion County,” said Republican Rep. Phil Hinkle, co-sponsor of HB 1734.

But the Mayor’s Office has another view.

“We’re opposed to the bill, mostly because it dilutes local control,” said Deputy Mayor Steve Campbell.

The current board is structured as it is because 95 percent of the board’s work involves Indianapolis International, which primarily affects Marion and Hendricks counties, Campbell added.

All may make for fireworks at Hinkle’s committee on local government, which is scheduled to give the bill a hearing in mid-February.

“I think it has a pretty good chance of flying,” Hinkle said.

The bill is likely to generate political steam, however.

Considering the Republican leanings of the counties that would pick up seats and the Republican state administration, a new board might have a decidedly GOP tilt, at least in the near term.

And Republicans were none too happy with the two-year-plus wait for a replacement for Republican board member Gene Haflich, who died in August 2002.

“I think that’s one of the things that started this [bill],” Hinkle said.

“My first blush on it? Excellent. Excellent,” Republican City-County Councilor Earl Salisbury said upon hearing of HB 1734. Salisbury, whose constituents live near the airport, had been displeased with the mayor’s delay in filling the board spot.

Peterson eventually named Haflich’s widow, Shirley, to the board.

The airport board is obscure to most, but wields considerable power. It approves major contracts, including the massive midfield terminal. A review of Peterson’s campaign records by IBJ found nearly two-thirds of companies or their top executives with long-term contracts for midfield gave to the mayor’s recent re-election campaign.

Peterson has been a strong advocate of pressing on with the terminal despite a severe slump in the airline industry that includes the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Indianapolis-based ATA, which Jan. 26 announced a huge reduction in flights at the airport.

It’s not uncommon for major airports to be overseen by a regional airport board. Louisville’s airport board consists of three members appointed by the city’s mayor, three by the county, and three by the governor, according to airport officials.

“The idea of an airport having a regional governing board is not totally new ground,” said Dennis Rosebrough, spokesman for airport management firm BAA Indianapolis.

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