Senate bill aims to “de-politicize” Airport Authority board
A bill is moving through the Nevada Legislature that will change the way the Airport Authority of Washoe County does business, and that critics say would transfer nearly complete control of the airport into the hands of the city of Reno.
“This is disguised as an attempt to give the board autonomy, but what’s it’s really about is taking control of the airport away from people,” airport activist Judith Snell said.
Senate Bill 299—sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Sen. Randolph Townsend, R-Reno—would add a ninth trustee to the airport board and ensure that board members are not answerable to the governing bodies that appoint them.
Why do this? A ninth seat on the board would be a handy tie-breaking vote. Last year, the airport board split over the election of a new chairman. The vote of the eight trustees was evenly divided between two candidates—Tom Gribbin and Richard Hill. The two men had differing ideas about how to conduct business and how to reverse the declining fortunes of the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.
Outgoing chairman Geno Menchetti said he had no desire to stay on while the dispute was resolved and suggested referring the matter to the attorney general’s office.
“If we can’t work together, we’re just going to sit around looking like a bunch of doodle-butts,” said an exasperated Menchetti.
The proposed bill changes language in the original 1977 legislation that created the authority from “eight persons who serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority in each case” to read simply “nine persons.”
Under the existing statute, the city of Reno appoints four trustees, while the city of Sparks and Washoe County each appoint two trustees. None of these individuals hold public office. SB 299 would add a ninth trustee “who represents consumers of services provided at the airport,” appointed by the County Fair and Recreation Board of Washoe County. That board—better known as the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority—is itself an appointed, not elected, body.
At a Senate Government Affairs Committee hearing on SB 299 last week, Raggio said trustees are unable to act independently on behalf of the airport because of continuing political pressure from bodies that appointed them. Raggio, who wrote the 1977 legislation that created the authority, said the intention of the Legislature was that the airport board be an independent board.
SB 299 would fix that by changing the requirements for appointment. Other than the RSCVA appointee, all trustees would be required to have experience in the aviation, business or tourism industry, or to have experience in finance or accounting.
Trustees would be limited to two four-year terms and could only be removed if the member willfully neglects or refuses to perform an official duty of the board. The appointing authority would not be able to remove a member for exercising independent judgment.
Though SB 299 was ostensibly intended to enable the airport trustees to break ties, a mechanism is already in place to do that, according to airport authority charter. In the Gribbin-Hill standoff, Hill said the board could not wait for an opinion from the attorney general and offered to resolve the deadlock with a coin toss, but Gribbin said he was unwilling to agree, saying he felt the community deserved a better resolution.
Business interests lobbied heavily for Gribbin. Board members reportedly received numerous calls from businesses urging support for Gribbin, but four trustees—including Sparks appointees Ed Bruce and John Moore—were steadfast in their support for Hill.
Trustee Larry Martin cited the board’s bylaws that state that, in the event of a tie, a second vote would be taken without the chairman voting. But Menchetti—who voted for Gribbin—said two legal opinions from outside attorneys contradicted that interpretation of the bylaws. He wouldn’t give up the vote.
Bruce made a motion to suspend the bylaws, but it failed by a 4-4 vote. All attempts to call for a re-vote, elect other officers or move the agenda forward failed for lack of a majority.
After nearly two hours of deadlock, a compromise solution was reached in which both candidates agreed to serve as co-chairs, each for a six-month period. In true Nevada style, Hill and Gribbin cut cards to see who would be chairman for the first six-month term. Almost immediately, rumors surfaced about the proposed legislation now introduced as SB 299.
Critics of the bill say it is designed to give permanent control of the airport to the city of Reno. Had Reno had a fifth vote, Gribbin would not have had to split his term with Hill, they said.
At the heart of the matter is the dispute over the financially strapped airport’s plan to expand its air-cargo operations to subsidize its dwindling passenger service. Airport officials said higher revenues from air cargo would help keep landing fees for passenger carriers low so the airlines won’t abandon the Reno market.
The plan to expand air cargo operations—particularly the now-defunct deal to create a regional distribution hub for the U.S. Postal Service in Reno—has drawn considerable opposition from the community, worried about noise from late-night flights and declining air quality.
Those concerns resulted in the local governments’ direction to their appointees to insist on an environmental impact statement being conducted before the hub would be approved.
However, cargo expansion plans have the support of the gaming industry and the business community, as well as some members of the airport board. In a memo written in late January, now-chairman Gribbin told fellow board members he had approached Raggio to sponsor the bill.
“Given the circumstances of the last couple of weeks with respect to the Reno City Council and Washoe County Commission’s request for an EIS, I had occasion to meet with Senator Raggio … to discuss this matter,” wrote Gribbin, adding that he was not speaking on behalf of the board.
In an attached letter to Raggio, Gribbin noted the senator’s reluctance to modify the appointment process. Nevertheless, Gribbin went on to suggest that the city of Reno be given a fifth seat on the board. He noted that the appointment process has become a concern not only to him, but also to many others.
“We all have seen the recent politically motivated attempts at micro-management of the appointed trustees by certain members of governmental agencies,” Gribbin wrote.
Although the city of Sparks and Washoe County have not yet taken a position on SB 299, they are following the bill closely.
If the Legislature acts to steer the Airport Authority board away from local elected government control, it might as well appoint the trustees itself, Sparks City Councilman Mike Carrigan said.
“If they’re going to take away my ability to talk to my appointee, then I don’t see why I should be asked to make the appointment in the first place,” Carrigan said.
Adding a ninth board member is not a bad idea, said Washoe County Commissioner Ted Short. But because the trustees have the powers that affect local taxpayers and property owners, Short said, the board members should be elected to represent the best interests of the public.
Airport critic Jackie Decker agreed. The board not only has legal authority to condemn private property, she said, it can also ask the county to increase property taxes to bail the airport out of financial difficulty.
“It can deplete residential land use forever, driving suburban sprawl, and can disproportionately direct aircraft noise over residential neighborhoods," Decker wrote to the Washoe County Commission. "These powers should be reserved only to an elected board. Please do not remove what little oversight and accountability they now have."