Economic Development, Government, and Travel & Tourism

Panel wants airport authority details amended

A few issues, particularly the size of the authority board, need to be resolved.

January 30, 2015
| By Pete Daly |
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A committee of the Kent County Board of Commissioners has postponed for two weeks its approval of a 64-page draft document that will spell out key details of the proposed airport authority that would take over operation of Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

The Legislative and Human Resources Committee last week voted unanimously to work on changes in the draft document involving several issues, including the size of the airport authority board and its power of eminent domain.

When it is approved by the full county commission, the document will be the proposed legislation given to the Michigan Legislature, which has to approve the transfer of GFIA operations to an airport authority. The draft, which the LHR committee will now act on Feb. 10, will still be on its planned timetable if it then goes to the full commission for approval Feb. 12.

Kent County Administrator/Controller Daryl Delabbio asked the committee members to determine their changes “in a timely manner.”

“We need to know what your concerns are as soon as possible,” he added.

Stan Stek, one of three new members of the county commission sworn in during January, noted the draft legislation specifies from five to seven members of the airport authority’s board members, who will later be appointed by the county commission.

Stek, who represents District 6 (Walker and part of Grand Rapids), has been an attorney for 30 years and is a senior principal at the Grand Rapids office of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone.

Stek suggested that limiting the authority board to seven members in the state legislation would be tying the county’s hands should it want to expand the board in the future. He said limiting it to seven members is “unnecessarily restrictive” and would be giving “significant” powers to “a limited number of folks,” including the power to create criminal laws.

Stek argued if the intent of the airport authority is to represent and operate GFIA as a regional airport, that region might someday involve six or seven West Michigan counties. Then a seven-member board would probably only have representatives from two or three other counties, at most, because Kent County — which appoints the authority board and will continue to own the airport — would want to maintain the majority on the board.

Stek concluded there should be no specified limit to the number of representatives the Kent County Commission could appoint to the airport authority board.

Kent County Corporate Counsel Tom Dempsey, who has been very involved with the draft legislation, said the people who worked on it thought a limit of seven would provide a group “of workable size.”

Steven Baldwin of Steven Baldwin Associates, a consulting firm hired by the Kent County commission to work on its airport authority plan, said in his 30-plus years as an airport management consultant, he has seen boards “too large and unwieldy.”

Part of the rationale for moving to an independent airport authority is to allow less bureaucratic operation of the GFIA, to run it like a business that responds quickly to changes and opportunities in the air travel market. Baldwin said the objective is to streamline decision-making, yet retain accountability, and more than seven members on the board would make that more difficult.

Baldwin added that GFIA will still be considered a small regional airport, and “we would recommend a smaller board.”

Commissioner Jim Talen of District 15 said the committee should increase the authority board limit to nine, but he later withdrew a motion to that effect after Stek asked why not just leave the upper limit unspecified.

Commissioner Shana Shroll of District 19, who chairs the LHR committee, said she feels whatever the upper limit is spelled out in the state legislation, “that’s likely where we’re going to end up” on the board membership.

“I respectfully disagree,” replied Stek.

He added that, 20 or 30 years from now, if the growth in West Michigan prompts the Kent County Commission to add more members to the airport authority, the county might have to go back to the Legislature to get a maximum members limit changed, and he doubts the county would do that.

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