The seemingly ceaseless drama surrounding the Kenton County Airport Board transferred from the local stage to the Broadway of Kentucky politics: the state legislature.
But thanks to a newly penned letter by Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus and sent to many local political and business leaders, the storyline will continue to play out here, too.
Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen presented an overview of his special examination of the board to the joint interim committee on transportation, a body that includes State Rep. Arnold Simpson (D-Covington), Rep. Addia Wuchner (R-Florence), Rep. Diane St. Onge (R-Lakeside Park), Rep. Sal Santoro (R-Florence), and Sen. John Schickel (R-Union).
Edelen's recommendations were received coldly.
"I do take some exceptions to some of your statements relative to the airport," Simpson said. The Covington Democrat challenged Edelen on the auditor's suggestion that there have been "decades of waste and abuse". "It's a lot of dynamic Kenton Countians who served on the board. My father served on the board. He was chairman in 1980. Therefor, when you cast aspersions of decades of abuse, you not only cast aspersions on individuals currently on the board, but I think you unintentionally cast aspersions on all our business leaders in our community who have served on that board and I don't think that's your intention."
Simpson also maintained that the airport is a nonprofit entity now, but that Kenton County has a vested interest in it, and while Edelen's recommendations include adding voting board members appointed by the governments of Boone, Campbell, and Hamilton Counties, as well as the States of Kentucky and Ohio, and the City of Cincinnati, the representative suggested that they should have to "pay to play".
"The board has gone awry," Simpson said. Edelen's report criticized heavy spending on travel and dining during meetings, and launched charges of perceived nepotism involving Arlinghaus and his daughter's employment at the airport. Edelen said that none of the abuse involved taxpayer dollars and that nothing criminal had transpired. "It should give rise to some concern, but, I mean, are not through your recommendations tossing the baby out with the bath water?"
"You talk in terms of a Northern Kentucky problem. In my opinion, it's a Kenton County problem. We are vested. Most of the deeds where the concourses are, are in the name of the Kenton County Fiscal Court. It's our property."
Simpson said that taking full control of the airport board away from Kenton County "smacks of socialism".
“One individual literally controls the airport that serves a metropolitan area of 2.1 million people and is critical to the economic vitality of the region and two states,” Edelen said.
Edelen proposed an 11-member board with three appointees from Kenton County, two appointees each from Boone County and the Kentucky governor, one appointee from Campbell County and the remaining three from Ohio.
Edelen disagreed with the notion that the airport is a Kenton County asset. He said nowhere is the airport listed as an asset or liability of the Kenton County Fiscal Court.
“Kenton County Fiscal Court isn’t even a secondary or tertiary guarantor of the dept, or the bonds, that are promulgated by the airport,” Edelen said, adding the airport was largely the result of a $2 million war department grant.
St. Onge drew laughter by pointing out her awkward legislative boundaries that include both Kenton and Boone Counties. Then, "The fallacy I see in the logic which suggests that if you don't have members from Cincinnati on the board, and I'm not saying we shouldn't have that, don't misunderstand me, the problem with the logic if you don't have that, it will be a detriment to the region and Cincinnati," she said. "I have a little problem with that logic there."
"I'm not in some bum rush to empower Ohioans," Edelen said. "It's important to have skin in the game from Ohio business leadership." Edelen said that 2/3 of the flyers at CVG Airport are from Cincinnati. "The issue is trying to increase the level of Ohio skin in the game." He said the political issues surrounding the board have led to "soap opera theatrics".
Edelen has the support of Kenton County Commissioner Kris Knochelmann who appeared with the auditor in Boone County when the examination results were released. Knochelmann defeated Arlinghaus in the Republican primary for Judge-Executive in May and runs unopposed next month and will presumably become Judge-Executive starting in January. Edelen applauded Knochelmann again during his testimony Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Arlinghaus remains steadfast that the control of the airport should remain with Kenton County. He blamed his May defeat on coverage of the airport board by the Cincinnati Enquirer, coverage he has characterized as deceptive and misleading particularly over its consistent failure to imply that taxpayer dollars were involved in the board's spending practices. At a recent meeting of the Kenton County Fiscal Court, Arlinghaus flat-out blamed the Enquirer for his loss and at the annual State of Northern Kentucky event hosted by the Chamber of Commerce, he told the packed room that Nathan Smith, Gov. Steve Beshear's appointed member of the airport's non-voting advisory board, vowed to blow up the airport board, creating the controversies. Smith denied that claim.
This week, Arlinghaus drafted a letter and sent it to supporters of his campaign, offering them what he called an advance copy of what was to be sent to city, county, and state officials. He said in the letter, obtained by The River City News, that Edelen's suggestions "essentially (strip Kenton County's) ownership and rightful control of CVG".
"The auditor even suggests that Kenton County may not be the rightful owner of CVG, a preposterous notion motivated by anti-Northern Kentucky politics out of Frankfort," Arlinghaus wrote. He said that the auditor noted that Kenton County did not list CVG as an asset in its books, but called that a mistake that took place in 2002. "This is being corrected to remove all doubt," Arlinghaus wrote, explaining that government accounting standards that changed that year preceded the error.
The letter indicates that it is to be accompanied by a map, showing the thousands of acres at the airport site owned by Kenton County, though the airport is located in Boone County and all its associated payroll tax money goes to that county. Kenton County makes no money on it.
Arlinghaus also takes umbrage at Edelen's suggestion that the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport is the only one that has all of its voting board members appointed by a single authority. Arlinghaus identifies Louisville's airport as having seven board members appointed by the mayor and three by the governor, while in Lexington, the mayor appoints all ten. "Neither of these airports have members outside of their respective jurisdictions, namely Jefferson or Fayette Counties," Arlinghaus wrote. "So why single out Northern Kentucky except for politics!"
The judge-executive again refers to an Enquirer reporter as "over-zealous" and accused James Pilcher of deliberately misleading the public. "This same reporter on at least two occasions had also applied for employment at CVG and was denied. In a previous conversation with Mr. Pilcher about his articles he became very belligerent with me and vented his anger with a previous Airport Board when he covered CVG years ago. He clearly has a vendetta against the Board and CVG. Considering he has an agenda, this would be a huge win for him and Ohio."
The River City News spoke with Pilcher by telephone on Thursday afternoon. He said that while doing private consulting work in public relations in 2007 he had made a presentation for the purpose of possibly doing work for the airport, but ultimately accepted a position with the Enqurier. He disclosed this information to his supervisors at the paper at the time. He left the paper in 2010 and between then and his return to the Enquirer in 2013 he had inquired to the airport about possible employment within its public relations department.
"Never once did I officially apply and never once was I officially considered," Pilcher said. "During those periods I was not employed by the Enquirer." When Pilcher believed that a story was emerging at the Kenton County Airport Board that he was going to pursue, he asked his supervisors whether there would be a conflict of interest and they determined that there was not, he said.
Does Pilcher have an agenda? "Absolutely not. I unequivocally deny that," he said. Pilcher added that he only spoke to Arlinghaus directly once, on the phone, and he remembers the conversation differently. "I take my duties seriously and I act professionally and did not lose my temper and do not feel like I have a stake in the situation."
"As for his allegations that we have written inaccurate information, I stand by my stories."
The judge-executive wrote that the Enquirer's coverage of the Airport Board reminded him of "socialistic countries that have state-controlled media creating stories for their benefit to manipulate public opinion as they wish, whether true or not".
Arlinghaus writes that historical documents exist in his office detailing the anger that Cincinnatians allegedly felt when Kentucky landed the airport 70 years ago. He also notes again that he asked for a 20% share in Boone County's payroll tax from the airport in exchange for a vote, but was turned down.
"Should you decide to follow the misguided recommendations of the State Auditor and pressure from outside jurisdictions or others who agree with him, purely for political reasons, you will be doing a grave injustice to the taxpayers of Kenton County, the rightful and only owners of CVG."
This story has been updated to include remarks from James Pilcher
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Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News