CHATHAM – Should the select board also serve as the airport commission?
That's a question that the charter review committee is asking as it works its way through a series of suggestions for amendments to the town's home-rule document.
Oversight of the airport is a subject that has come up recently before the select board. In an opinion issued in September, Town Counsel Patrick Costello said that according to state statute, the airport commission has “chief executive authority with respect to airport operations.” The select board controls who sits on the commission and inclusion of airport funding articles on the town meeting warrant, but does not set airport policy.
The airport commission has been mired in controversy since skydiving began at the George Ryder Road facility almost a decade ago. Criticism of the commission continued for its handling of the update of the airport's master plan. Numerous times airport critics have gone to the select board to seek intervention or changes on the commission, charging that the its members were not hearing residents' input on the plan.
“The current airport commission should be disbanded because they have made it clear that they have no intention to consider what citizens want for their airport or what is in the best interest of Chatham,” David Burns wrote to the charter commission on behalf of the West Chatham Association. The select board also serves as water and sewer commissioners, he noted. “They could act as airport commissioners with the help of staff, an advisory committee and consultants and serve the community which elected them. We believe that the governance they would provide would be more community oriented.”
In an Oct. 15 email to Town Clerk Julie Smith, Costello wrote that in his opinion, the charter could be amended or a general bylaw approved designating members of the select board to serve as “ex officio” members of the airport commission. There's one major caveat, however: state law requires that at least one member of the commission have experience in aeronautics.
In an Oct. 14 email to Smith, charter review committee chair John Kaar included a draft of a charter amendment bestowing the powers of the airport commission on the select board as the “chief policy making agency of the airport.” According to the draft amendment, the select board “may” establish a committee to be called the airport committee to which it may delegate management of the airport, although the final authority would rest with the select board as the commission. This is different from the water and sewer commission, which Kaar wrote allows the select board to delegate those powers and duties to another town agency.
Because the idea of switching airport authority to the select board has “substantial support among some of the town population,” the charter committee “will need to address this suggestion seriously,” Kaar wrote. The commission plans to have a specific meeting on the subject next month; its next scheduled meeting is Nov. 9.
The select board touched on the matter briefly at its Oct. 19 meeting and did not appear very amenable to the idea. Dean Nicastro wanted the board to address the issue at this week's meeting, sending a letter to the charter committee opposing the proposal. However, the annual budget summit was scheduled for this week. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said the charter committee proposal will be discussed at the board's Nov. 2 meeting.
The airport commission has not discussed the proposal, chair Huntley Harrison said in an email, but he and other commissioners plan to be at the charter committee's Nov. 9 meeting.
At the charter committee's Oct. 12 meeting, a former airport commission member, said he seen “red flags” in the way the commission operates, such as failing to comply with runway protection area guidelines.
“Let's get everybody at the table and let's have a conversation about this,” he said. “I think there are enough people in town who are concerned about where this airport is going over the next 20 years that it's an issue we should talk about further.”
A charter amendment would not include details on airport operations, Kaar said. “The real question is where is the right place for these operational decisions to be made,” he said.