The Naples Airport Authority Urgently Needs Reform-
The City Council Should Act On August 18
The five commissioners of the Naples Airport Authority (NAA) that are responsible for the management of the airport, all residents of the City, are appointed by the City Council to four-year terms of office. Following their appointment, they are no longer accountable to the City Council or its citizens. There is no oversight of the NAA. The NAA answers only to itself. It is therefore completely a matter of trust that the NAA will balance the interests of the airport and the citizens in exercising its stewardship of the airport. But as shown by its recent decision to plow ahead with its secretly developed plan to expand the main runway at the airport, the judgment of the NAA has been clouded by the power of its independence.
The NAA has made serious mistakes in judgment in proceeding with the runway expansion plan. The plan was disguised from the view of the general public and the NAA’s Technical Advisory Committee, a committee of citizens charged with studying ways to reduce noise. The objective of the NAA’s deception was apparently to fend off likely opposition. And in its untelevised “workshop” meetings when the NAA commissioners forgot they were being taped, they displayed contempt for the City Council’s and the citizens’ vital interest in maintaining the airport’s present size.
The NAA needs to be reformed to better protect and serve the interests of the City. At the City Council meeting scheduled for August 16, two commissioners will be appointed. It is proposed that new criteria for appointees be adopted by the City Council including among others that appointees have no direct or indirect conflict of interest and that no existing commissioner be appointed having participated in the runway expansion project. Changes in appointment procedures also are proposed.
The Naples Airport Authority
In 1969, the State of Florida passed legislation creating the Naples Airport Authority (NAA). The purpose was to establish an independent governmental entity responsible for the operation, development and improvement of the airport. The Naples Airport Authority, a five member board of commissioners appointed by the Naples City Council to four-year terms, was established to undertake these responsibilities.
Over the forty years of its existence the airport has operated safely and in a financially sound manner. But the latter is hard not to do given that the airport is a City-created monopoly that pays no taxes to the City and only one dollar a year in rent for use of one full square mile of the City’s land. In addition, it receives such sizeable grants from Federal and State governments that its $30 million capital budget is almost entirely funded from grants. With those generous gifts and the people of Naples charging just $1 a year, one would think that the airport would embrace as a highest priority a fundamental obligation to the City and its residents.
This NAA Has Displayed Poor Judgment
Yes, the NAA commissioners are our neighbors. They live in the City or they could not be appointed to the NAA. Yet, this alone clearly does not insure that they will have good judgment and make good decisions in the best interest of the airport and community. The maximum runway expansion effort shows why appointments to the NAA require special scrutiny by the City Council and adherence to certain guidelines. Major misjudgments made by the present NAA include the following:
• The NAA deliberately withheld its runway expansion plan from the FAA Part 150 Noise Study Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) for almost 2 ½ years even though the airport has admitted that the it had intended from the outset to include the expansion under the pseudonym “configuration” changes. Also, the airport has misrepresented and failed to disclose vital information to the TAC, and has compromised its noise consultant to advance its commercial service agenda. These actions show poor judgment.
The TAC, which is comprised of volunteer citizens whose responsibility is to study airport operations and recommend noise abatement actions, cannot function if it fails to receive timely and accurate information on the airport’s plans for expansion. In essence, through its deception, the airport has broken trust with the TAC. As a consequence, members of the TAC have lost confidence in the credibility of the airport and the NAA. The NAA even contracted with the same noise consultant who is supporting the TAC to produce a new noise map falsely claiming that there would be noise reduction from expanding the runways to allow larger jets. This was presented to the City Council as fact even though it was not reviewed or approved by the TAC and is incomplete and materially misleading. The noise map has to be revised to include proposed new airport layout, new types of jets and new traffic projections thereby delaying further completion of the study.
• The NAA, contrary to its claimed sensitivity to the community, made efforts to prevent widespread awareness of the runway expansion plan by scrupulously avoiding any reference to runway extensions at its monthly meetings and using the term and when some reference to the expansion could not be avoided they called it a “displaced threshold”. This successfully assured that the uninformed public would have no idea that the largest expansion in the 70-year history of the airport was afoot. In addition, not a single press release was issued announcing such an important project while at the same time the NAA was touting its planned customs facility. The degree of the cover-up by the NAA is demonstrated by the fact that a Naples Daily news reporter regularly attended the NAA meetings and interviewed key players, yet never realized that the NAA was pursuing historical extension plans before her eyes.
• At the September 2, 2009 meeting of the City Council, the NAA presented an overview of its 2010 fiscal year budget and plan. The Council was assured by the NAA chairman that the Council would be kept informed of any plans to provide commercial service at Naples. He even said there would be a partnership between the NAA and the City Council in developing the plan. But at the time of that meeting, the NAA chairman was already on his way in his plan to extend the runways, and had been working with the NAA counsel on his legal strategy. Of course he did not reveal this to the Council.
• Then, during the next six months the NAA and airport completed its detailed plan for extending the runways and presented it to the FAA, there was no press release or any public disclosure. In fact there was no further information provided to the City Council until April 6, 2010 when individual Council members were briefed on the plan. When the TAC, first discovered the plan its members revealed it to the public who then informed the Naples Daily News.
• At the NAA untelevised Workshop on March 9, 2010, the true extent of what can go off kilter inside a committee of neighbors that is unaccountable to the community was displayed. In a discussion of the airport’s position that it has Federal preemption powers to make any change to the airport related to flight operations, the then Chair of the NAA stated, “Council needs to understand, they can’t stop us”. This showed not only poor judgment but arrogance and distain for the elected officials of the City and the entire community. A further measure of the arrogance of the NAA occurred at that same meeting when a commissioner said it was important to keep the City Council members in the loop because you don’t want them to appear stupid.
• The expansion plan finally was revealed to the City Council, the TAC and the public in April 2010 just when many of the City’s residents departed for the summer. This may have been cleverly timed to avoid public scrutiny, but again it shows poor judgment on the part of the NAA. Expansion of the runways is a big deal and once done will affect the character and charm of the City for the indefinite future. But the NAA plan was to get the extension completed before the full population returned for the new season.
• The NAA, consistent with its “they can’t stop us” philosophy, now has decided to use its “preemption hammer”, arrogantly claiming the City zoning ordinance which limits airport runways to 5,000 feet can’t be enforced against the NAA. This is akin to a hostile takeover of City property. Amazingly, these five NAA commissioners, our neighbors, rejected approaching the community and the City Council on a partnership basis as was proposed at the September City Council meeting. Their offensive “in your face” attack is assured to destroy the good relationship any reasonable person would expect the NAA would want to have with the City Council and the community. It also has established a confrontation with a segment of the community who are fighting to protect their homes and the quality of life in the City. With its threat to extend the runways regardless of the zoning laws and the will of the Council, the airport has created a major conflict in Naples which has the potential to escalate into legal proceedings. The NAA has brought us to the edge of a slippery slope. And bear in mind, all of the actions by the NAA on this matter, every single one of their votes, and there have been many, WERE UNANIMOUS.
Actions are Needed to Reform the NAA
So what can be done to address the NAA unaccountability problem and provide more oversight and influence to our elected officials short of revising the established State legislation? In the near term, it comes down to more careful selection of NAA appointees. The City Council has the opportunity to address the composition of the NAA at the scheduled Council meeting on August 16 when candidates for two NAA openings will be interviewed and appointed. The following qualification guidelines and other changes should be adopted:
1. No candidate should have a direct or indirect conflict of interest in the airport. No commissioner should be a customer or supplier to the airport or be employed by an organization that has a direct material interest in the outcome of NAA decisions.
2. Having demonstrated poor judgment and participated in the runway expansion cover-up, no existing commissioner should be reappointed.
3. With the possible exception of one commissioner, none of them live under the flight paths. This clearly results in reduced sensitivity to aircraft noise. If applicants for the two open NAA positions reside under the flight paths, they should be selected over those who do not.
4. Candidates should commit to inform the City Council and the public, including press releases, on a timely basis of all significant projects under consideration by the NAA prior to initiation of any engineering or other consultant engagements.
5. In the future, the NAA terms of office should be changed to end in the November/December period. This would enlarge the candidate base to include residents who are not available during the August/September period. Many qualified candidates are not in town for extended periods during these months and it makes no sense eliminate them from consideration due to arbitrary scheduling. Qualified candidates who have applied for the available positions have been told they will not be considered because they are not available for interviews in mid-August.
6. All NAA meetings should be televised, both regular meetings and workshops. The workshops are not televised and are conducted in a conference room at the airport. Not only are they not televised, the audio recordings of the workshops are not available on the City’s website, effectively removing them from later public access. While the workshops are public meetings, being held in an airport conference room, they are rarely attended by the public and recordings show that they unintentionally morph into de facto private sessions.
Appointing NAA commissioners who meet the above qualifications, along with the other changes, will not assure that lapses in judgment won’t occur in the future, but had these standards been in place, many of the consequences of the misjudgments experienced with the runway expansion proposal might have been avoided.
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