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Old Wounds Reopened as Kenton Fiscal Court Meeting Becomes Airport Board Debate

What had been a relatively uneventful meeting of the Kenton County Fiscal Court on Tuesday evening took a turn back toward the contentious period that preceded the May primary elections.

Just as the court had finished up its resolutions, Commissioner Jon Draud mentioned that he had submitted two resolutions that had been left off the agenda.

It was explained that Draud's resolutions were turned in too late to be included on the agenda, but they were brought to the floor as additional items Tuesday.

In short, Draud's resolutions called for the Kenton County Fiscal Court to oppose any changes to the structure of the Kenton County Airport Board, and to allow the full Fiscal Court to approve appointments to the board.

The first resolution resulted in a tie, 2-2 vote, while the second passed unanimously, though it bears no legal authority.

"Most of the people I talk to, and I know I don't talk to everyone in the county, but I'd say 90%-plus don't want us relinquishing any of the power associated with the structure of the airport board," Draud said. "In fact, I question the constitutionality of having people from Ohio on our airport board."

Draud's resolutions follow the results of a special examination of the Kenton County Airport Board by Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen. Following a series of reports in The Cincinnati Enquirer that detailed the spending practices of the board as it related to travel by members and Judge-Executive Steve Arlinghaus, and food and alcoholic beverages purchased for members, and other issues, Edelen's office started to look into things.

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In his report released last month, Edelen called for a complete overhaul of the airport board, taking away the Kenton County Judge-Executive's authority to appoint members unilaterally, and also called for other changes, including the appointment of members by the Governors of Kentucky and Ohio, the Mayor of Cincinnati, the Counties of Hamilton (OH), Boone, and Campbell, in addition to Kenton. That is a change from the current set-up in which the Kenton County Judge-Executive appoints all eleven voting members, while other government entities can appoint members to the advisory board whose members can vote in committees but not during sessions of the full board.

"I'm in favor of people from Ohio serving on the airport board at the discretion of the county judge," Draud said. "I don't see any need to require people from Ohio to be on the board and I think if you take that a step farther, people from Louisville, if we're going to have people on our board from Ohio, people in Louisville should have people on their board from Indiana."

The issue of the airport board and its expenses was a central issue in the Republican primary for Judge-Executive in which Arlinghaus lost his seat to Commissioner Kris Knochelmann. With no Democrat on the November ballot, Knochelmann will become Judge-Executive in January. When Edelen presented the results of his examination and made his recommendations for change, Knochelmann stood next to him with Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore.

The airport is owned by Kenton County (though Edelen says it's not owned by anyone) and is located in Boone County. All of the payroll tax revenue generated by the airport goes to Boone County.

"Boone County, their issue wanting representation on the board, most of the people I talk to don't realize that Boone County already has a million in income from the payroll tax related to the airport and we have no revenue that I know of from that airport board," Draud said. "So my position with Boone County would be, if they want additional representation on the board they need to begin negotiating with us some of the payroll tax."

Any change to the structure of the airport board would have to be addressed by the Kentucky General Assembly, and could be presented when state legislators convene in Frankfort early next year.
 
Draud's resolution would put the fiscal court on the record as being opposed to General Assembly intervention. "I do not want the General Assembly to take any action on the structure of the board and what I want our court to do tonight is urge them not to take action," said Draud, a former state representative. He said that he has spoken to thirty legislators from around the state and had yet to speak to one in favor of anyone from Ohio being on the board.
 
Scenes from the campaign trail play out again
 
Arlinghaus gave Draud's motion the necessary second so that the resolution could receive a vote. The 2-2 tie was much more common before the judge-executive's defeat in May. He and Draud almost always voted together while Knochelmann would be joined by Commissioner Beth Sewell. That make-up returned on Tuesday night.
 
"I can't disagree with you more," Knochelmann said to Draud. He said the audit by Edelen pointed out improper actions by board members and of the appointing authority, the judge-executive, who was criticized in the report for travel expenses and accused of possible nepotism after his daughter became employed at the airport.
 
"We've got much bigger issues than what this one resolution can resolve," Knochelmann said. "What we need to do, is a suggestion of bringing together all the stakeholders in the community together. I have a lot of people who have said to me as well that the board is a mess and it needs to get fixed and one of the things we need to do is have a community discussion about that."
 
Knochelmann said that then the county could go to the General Assembly with a plan, though he also said that, "Kenton County should not ever lose control of the airport".
 
"I would disagree with the statement you made about the airport being a mess," Draud said.
 
"I let you finish - ," Knochelmann said.
 
"But you talk on and on - "
 
"It is a mess - "
 
"Did you read the audit?," Sewell asked Draud. "He followed a set of standards, sir, and those standards that were set up by their own board were broken. You're not reading it clearly."
 
"Let's vote on the resolution and get it over with," Draud said. "(Board Chairman) Bill Robinson has done a great job at that airport. We've brought in new airlines recently. I think our airport board is very capable of managing their own affairs without the General Assembly getting involved."
 
Knochelmann, Sewell, and Draud all return to the Fiscal Court next year where they will be joined by Ft. Wright Mayor Joe Nienaber who won Knochelmann's commissioner seat.
 
"With all due respect," Knochelmann told Draud, "and we're going to have to work with each other for the next four years-plus, when we're speaking, I'm not going to interrupt you, and I ask for the same courtesy."
 
Knochelmann referenced what he called "community outrage" and "community misunderstanding" and "a lack of faith in what's going on" at the airport board. "If the net result is what we have us a more vibrant and more forward-looking board structure that actually addresses the issues the auditor brought up, I think everybody wins. I don't think anybody necessarily has a final recommendation or solution. We cannot fix the challenges with one quick resolution at this point."
 
Arlinghaus describes mischaracterization by Cincinnati Enquirer
 
Arlinghaus was mostly quiet during the debate over the resolutions but spoke up at the end. He blames his May loss to Knochelmann on the relentless coverage of the airport board by the Cincinnati Enquirer, a publication that the judge-executive said consistently referred to the expenses made by the airport board as "taxpayer dollars". 
 
"Community outrage? There has been a lot of community outrage about this whole thing. Knocking on doors during the campaign, a lot of folks tell me they didn't appreciate the fact that tax dollars were being used by the airport board for food and entertainment," Arlinghaus said. "And I had to tell them that there's no taxpayer dollars involved in the airport board's travel. They said that's not what they read in the paper."
 
"Unfortunately after six different articles appeared in the Enquirer, I finally demanded a meeting with the Enquirer to discuss this and had to prove to them that they were wrong. And yet, there was no retraction done." The judge-executive said that instead, the Enquirer simply became "very tricky" about how they worded things.
 
Arlinghaus held up an article from the Enquirer from September 10 that detailed another trip by the airport board to an industry conference. He highlighted a line in the article, "Expenses are not funded by taxpayers". "For the first time the Enquirer acknowledged that there are no taxpayer dollars used for board travel," he said. 
The board is funded by the airport which is funded by the airlines and landing fees.
 
"The Enquirer has done a masterful job of misleading the public for the sake of selling newspapers."
 
Meanwhile, Arlinghaus also said that he has also spoken previously with the Boone County Judge-Executive about sharing seats on the airport board but said that Boone was not interested in sharing payroll tax revenue. He said he has had the same conversation with Ohio officials. "No one wants to buy an interest," he said of the airport that he values at between $1 and $1.4 billion. "They all want it given to them."
 
Also Tuesday, Debbie Simpson, Charles Session, Jr., and Dr. Dwayne Smith were all unanimously appointed to the airport advisory board, while James Berger was reappointed by a vote of 3-1 with Knochelmann dissenting.
 
Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News