ATTEND ENOUGH LOCAL GOVERNMENT meetings and you find yourself reading the mood of the crowd. When it’s the regulars and the agenda’s routine, greetings get shouted across the room. People circulate. But for controversies it’s different. Before the call to order, conversation is subdued, turf is defined. People are itching to make themselves heard.
Last week’s meeting at the West Ghent firehouse was a shouting match waiting to erupt. Nearly a hundred people turned out to hear the Airport Committee of the county Board of Supervisors outline what comes next for the county airport on Route 9H. Last year when the committee was formed, the county had already embarked on a bullying approach to safety upgrades at the airport, and the public didn’t care for it. This was the people’s chance to set county government straight.
But that’s not what happened. Instead of a platform for public discontent, the committee and the audience continued the dialog that has developed over the last few months, with the committee behaving unlike county government, or government in general. In a bi-partisan manner it methodically gathers relevant information from a variety of sources. Its members listen carefully and respond to the point. It conducts business in the open–no closed sessions or surprise announcements. It treats its harshest critics with respect. Most shocking of all, it is about to suggest a cheaper, fairer way to improve airport safety.
The county airport has a single runway more than a mile long. That’s plenty of room to operate business and private jets, but there isn’t enough open space at the north end to meet safety standards recommended by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA won’t close the airport if the problem isn’t addressed, but it might cut off its generous stream of federal funding for all types of airport upgrades.
Years ago airport consultants recommended the county buy land at the north end of the runway, but the owner of the most important parcel, Meadowgreens Golf Course, won’t sell for the price offered. So the county decided to get tough last year and take the land by eminent domain. That’s a red flag for many property owners and it focused the attention of other airport neighbors, who discovered the county also wanted parts of their properties. And that prompted scrutiny of the county’s existing airport expansion plans, parts of which look like something Bernie Madoff might have cooked up.
These revelations could have mired the committee in finger pointing and unproductive bitterness. But it didn’t. The panel stayed on task and was attentive when one of its members, Greenport Supervisor John Porreca (R), suggested a unorthodox idea: Why not shorten the runway enough to create the safety zone at the north while leaving it long enough so that fancy jets could still use it?
It’s such a good idea that the other airport options sound boneheaded by comparison. It’s possible that the FAA will scuttle this plan, but it probably won’t. The feds want the county to get behind a plan–any plan–that improves safety.
The bigger threat is local politics. Both the Airport Committee and the full Board of Supervisors have to give the plan their official blessing. Along the way, voices in the county who are certain that Bigger Is Better might try to derail this effort. After all, what if every part of county government were expected to function in an equally transparent, responsive, bi-partisan manner? Mighty scary.
Positive outcomes like the one that promises to emerge from the Airport Committee proposal don’t happen without effective leadership. The members of the committee who support a shorter runway deserve credit for their open-mindedness. County board Chairman Pat Grattan (R-Kinderhook) can take pride in having appointing a committee and given it freedom to challenge outdated county policies. But the real force behind this effort has been the genial chairman, Art Bassin (D-Ancram).
Any demagogue or conman can get a crowd worked up. But to face a roomful of concerned citizens wary of government action and show by example that government is listening and just may get it right this time calls for rare and valuable skills. Mr. Bassin possesses them. Voters get that.
The Bassin resolution on the airport still needs all the public support it get at the Airport Committee meeting starting at 3 p.m. Wednesday, February 12 at 401 State Street, Hudson, at the special briefing for the county Board of Supervisors at 6 p.m. that day and at the full board of Supervisors meeting at 7 p.m.