Winged conflict

Can a county commissioner operate a business at local airfields and vote on decisions affecting them?

County Commissioner Robert Larkin is a target of criticism that he may have a conflict of interest on local airport issues.

County Commissioner Robert Larkin is a target of criticism that he may have a conflict of interest on local airport issues.

Photo By David Robert

No public interest is anything other or nobler than a massed accumulation of private interests.
—Mark Twain

Business and politics are sometimes a dicey mix. Many believe that business experience molds a well-rounded government leader. Among local officials who subscribe to this belief is Washoe County Commission chairman Robert Larkin, and some of the issues that may face Larkin in the future demonstrate the difficult questions that public officials must often navigate.

Larkin owns and operates Romeo Sierra Aviation and is an FAA-certified flight instructor. He believes this experience in the business community makes him an asset to the Washoe County Commission. His critics are quick to suggest that a public official with such business ties could allow his interests to become conflicted. Larkin disagrees.

Critics also say Larkin’s role on the commission puts him in a position to create policy that could affect the Spanish Springs Airport and indirectly help his business.

One of these critics, Spanish Springs resident Vallea Rose, insists that Larkin’s decision to run for commissioner was based partly on his desire to expand the airport, which could allow him to expand his business. There is some evidence for this. Max Bartmess, president of the Spanish Springs Pilots Association and manager of the Spanish Springs Airport, wrote in a Jan. 31, 2006, letter to airport supporters that he had “successfully campaign[ed] to get a pilot and CFI [Certified Flight Instructor] elected as County Commissioner for the airport’s district … [which] has brought us within striking distance of our ultimate goals.” Specifics on these goals have only been shared with supporters.

Larkin says he disclosed possible conflicts of interest in public meetings, and the district attorney advised him he need not abstain from voting on Washoe County airport issues.

“In [two] instances I participated and voted disclosing that I was an active pilot/instructor and asked the district attorney if a conflict of interest was present,” Larkin says. “In both instances, the DA asked if I had any financial interest in the outcome of the vote, and in both instances, I indicated that I did not and have not had any financial interest in any airport in Washoe County.”

However, it is difficult to understand Larkin’s assertion, since his private business operates at every airport in Washoe County.

Though Larkin says his business operates at other local airfields (Stead and Reno), and he is in a position to vote for appointments to the Reno airport governing board, his ties at the Spanish Springs Airport are particularly pronounced. These ties have become the target of constituents as has his reluctance to recuse himself from voting on airport issues.

Moreover, advice from legal counsel is just that—advice. The final judgment on whether to abstain is the office holder’s, in this case, Larkin’s.

Rose believes Larkin hopes to use his role as commissioner to allow expansions to the Spanish Springs airport, including more room for runways, tie-downs and an airplane hangar. Additionally, if Larkin and others successfully enable the county to take control of the airport—an interest they’ve expressed in recent months—taxpayers will be charged with funding these expansions. The airstrip is on federal land that is currently leased by the Spanish Springs Pilots Association.

Rose said that Larkin and his allies want to expand their businesses in an airport that can’t yet accommodate such change, “They’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole by forcing these expansions.”

She claims plans are underway to construct a large airport on the site of a small airfield. This will require the airport to consume more land and resources—growth not anticipated in the airport’s original plan—and could impact quality of life in the Spanish Springs area. In order for the airport to grow, many government bodies must become involved. The Washoe County Commission is most influential among them.

There is a proposed moratorium on the development of four houses near the end of the airport’s runway, which is more circumstantial evidence that an expansion of the airport is on somebody’s radar. No houses means more space to expand runways. Thus, Larkin may have to decide whether his loyalties as a commissioner lie with local residents wanting to build homes or with operators of the airport (where he operates privately) wanting to expand.

There is a kind of twilight zone status in local planning regulation called “non-conforming status.” Where development existed before planning regulations were adopted—and the SS airstrip is one such place—it is not subject to that regulation. Larkin and airport manager Bartmess support the airstrip’s non-conforming status, which may mean that the facility would not be required to seek special-use or other permits for expansion. The airport may not be required to seek approval for its development by various planning commissions.

With such relatively unregulated growth, the earning potential for businesses such as Larkin’s is more promising. However, it is uncertain whether the airport could escape planning regulation. Those regulations say that when non-conforming sites are further developed significantly—as by adding a “primary structure” such as a hanger—they are supposed to come under planning regulation.

One final issue, according to Rose, is that Larkin, Bartmess and others propose turning the Spanish Springs Airport into a premier flight-training facility. Some nearby residents say that training new pilots near so many homes is frightening, a fear intensified by last month’s small plane crash in a southwest Reno neighborhood.

Larkin called being faced with a decision that would impact both the airport and his private business a “no-brainer.” He said he would recuse himself from such a decision because ethics call for it.

Larkin said the final judgment on his conflicts of interest will rest with voters: “If you’re unethical, you won’t be re-elected.”