CHATHAM — Ahead of the latest round of airport master plan discussion meetings, selectmen are encouraging the airport commission to really listen to citizens’ concerns to rebuild a sense of public trust. It’s also not too late to form a citizens’ advisory committee to improve public participation in the process, selectmen said.
On a split vote in January, the airport commission rejected that suggestion and opted instead to host a series of three “small group discussion meetings” to review parts of the airport plan update. The first such meeting is scheduled for March 11 at 4:30 p.m. at the town offices annex.
“They’re not going to be deliberations,” commission Chairman Peter Donovan told selectmen Monday. There will purposely be too few commissioners present to constitute a quorum, and participants will be encouraged to talk with the airport planning consultant in a small group format “just to try to defuse the tensions of a formal board hearing,” he said. The sessions will be recorded on video and played later for the commissioners who could not attend, he said.
Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said it may be difficult for citizens who ask questions related to policy decisions that are outside the purview of the consultants, and that the full commission would need to decide.
Donovan said the small group sessions on March 11, 18 and 25 will follow regular airport commission meetings on March 10, 17 and 24, at which commissioners will review specific chapters of the airport plan.
“We’ve got people with their heels dug in,” Davis said, and it’s clear some of the commissioners are also frustrated because some critics of the plan have raised the same questions repeatedly. While the sessions should invite questions and concerns, “if you feel you’ve answered them, move on,” Davis said.
Selectman Peter Cocolis said several airport plan sessions held late last year attracted more than 100 people each, and people felt that their concerns weren’t being heard. Whether or not that is true, “that’s a problem,” Cocolis said. Though it has published “pages and pages of answered questions” about the airport plan, critics remain unconvinced, he said. Small group discussions might work, “unless you get 50 people at your small groups,”he said.
The airport commission’s work so far has been worthwhile, Selectman Dean Nicastro said, but it should all remain open to public comment.
“The anxiety and concerns that have arisen from this whole process involving the plan update are shared by a broad swath of the general public,” he said. “And it’s not limited to the sort of more familiar observers and critics of airport operations.” Nicastro said he’s disappointed that the airport commission didn’t appoint an advisory committee to help guide the process.
“I think that was the better approach to take,” he said.
Selectman Jeffrey Dykens said he also worries that the small meetings could outgrow their venues.
“It’s better than nothing,” he said, but a citizens’ advisory committee would have been a better approach. While there are intransigents on both sides of the debate, the commission is facing the perception that it is sometimes not listening, he said.
“We’re playing catch-up,” Dykens said. Had there been better public involvement earlier in the process, “we’d be in a better spot.”
Board member Cory Metters asked Donovan to have the airport commission reconsider creating the advisory group. The debate over the airport master plan update is causing broad angst that has reached selectmen and town staff including the town manager, he said. “It is getting broader and broader,” Metters said. Selectmen are willing to work with the airport commission, but believe the best approach is to involve the public more closely, Metters said.
Several citizens have expressed interest in the open seats on the airport commission, Cocolis said. He urged the commission to reconsider creating a citizens’ advisory group. When it comes to addressing concerns raised by airport critics, “if you put your back up and you say, ‘we’ve already talked about it,’ everybody’s a loser,” he said.
Davis thanked Donovan and his committee for their efforts.
“It’s not an easy process that’s happened here. It’s snowballed a little bit,” she said.
“We’ll get through it,” Donovan said.