EDITORIAL: Don’t bury airport panel

WHAT A MESS PAT GRATTAN’S got himself into. The Republican supervisor of the Town of Kinderhook is chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. And as chairman he took an unusual step last year. He appointed a Democrat as head of a committee looking into a looming boondoggle at the county airport. Much to everyone’s surprise, this open, bipartisan committee got the job done. And with that, Mr. Grattan returned to the old way of doing things.

But hold on. The voters witnessed the committee conduct what bleeding hearts call “open government,” along with a heavy dose of facts and a willingness to listen. It was like a taste of red meat, and now the people want more of it. Humbug!

You have to wonder why Mr. Grattan chose Ancram Supervisor Art Bassin, a Democrat, to head the Airport Committee in the first place. Was there no qualified Republican or did he anticipate that Mr. Bassin and the committee’s four other supervisors–three Republicans and a Democrat–would fail and the blame would be on the Democrat? Or maybe he truly believed Mr. Bassin was the best qualified person for job.

The committee began work thinking that the Federal Aviation Administration would demand that the county acquire land at the north end of the runway to increase the safety for private jets using the airport. County officials initially insisted the only way to do this was to buy part of the Meadowgreens Golf Course and obtain restrictive easements on other nearby properties. The golf course owner demanded more money than the county was willing to pay and it looked like the county would take the land by eminent domain.

But the committee came up with a far simpler plan based on FAA policies and real data. It wouldn’t have cost much by comparison to an eminent domain case. And then, by opening up the discussion, the committee discovered that almost no changes are required. The Airport Committee spared county taxpayers a huge bill.

And that’s why Mr. Grattan decided to a few weeks ago to strip the Airport Committee of its independence and make it a subcommittee of the county Department of Public Works Committee. Like we always say: No good job goes unpunished around here.

New Lebanon Supervisor Michael Benson (R) was a member of the airport committee until he resigned. Though he attended few of the committee’s meetings, he did express displeasure with the results of the Airport Committee’s work. Mr. Benson is chairman of the DPW committee, and he insisted until the end that the airport had to expand and the county should exercise its power of eminent domain. Under Mr. Grattan’s new plan, Mr. Benson will have a big say in what, if anything, the airport subcommittee can accomplish.

Mr. Grattan is an able politician. That’s why he’s chairman. But it’s not wise for a politician to allow someone from the opposite political party to step into the spotlight. That surely wasn’t what Mr. Grattan had in mind, yet now he can’t put the spectacle of a Democrat leading a bipartisan effort to save the county money back in the bottle. The episode benefitted the public, but it turned out to be a political miscalculation.

The solution proposed by Mr. Grattan–burying the Airport Committee–only compounds the problem. The chairman has the authority to make such changes, but this exercise of that power leads to another unintended effect. It has raised the visibility of Mr. Bassin and the committee he chairs.

The Airport Committee has proven that it has a role distinct from the normal matters before of the standing DPW Committee. Arguably the airport panel’s most critical task is as intermediary between the Board of Supervisors and a powerful agency of the U.S. Government, the FAA. The DPW Committee might be willing take on this complex set of duties, but that is hardly a responsible way to determine who will handle such an important task in light of the committee’s success so far. Mr. Bassin was once the right person to lead this effort. Who, now, is more qualified?

Mr. Grattan displayed prudence and resolve when he created the Airport Committee. It was a political decision of a kind seldom seen in these times. But the Airport Committee still has work to do and reorganizing the panel before a new Board of Supervisors convenes in January 2016 would be an act of reckless disregard for the airport and the taxpayers who support it.

 

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