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Kenton County, State Auditor Disagree On Allowing Ohio Residents to Vote at Airport Board

Seated at his new perch in the judge-executive's seat, Kris Knochelmann presided over his first Kenton County Fiscal Court meeting on Monday morning and presented the proposal crafted by a task force he launched to restructure the Kenton County Airport Board which oversees the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).

Though the seats were somewhat rearranged, the tenor and debate was much as it was left in December when Steve Arlinghaus, whom Knochelmann defeated in a Republican primary seven months ago, presided over his final meeting. Commissioner Jon Draud emerged Monday as a committed opponent to Knochelmann's airport plan just as he had been throughout the previous year.

In October, Knochelmann announced the formation of a task force to evaluate the governance of the airport. Currently, the 7-member Kenton County Airport Board has all the voting power and is entirely appointed unilaterally by the Kenton County Judge-Executive. There is an 11-member advisory board that does not having voting authority and whose members are appointed by some surrounding governments.

That would change under the plan presented Monday. The advisory board would be scrapped and the voting board would be expanded to include eleven members: seven appointed by Kenton County, two by Boone County, one by Campbell County, and one by the Kentucky Governor.

There would be no seats for Ohio residents as proposed by Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen whose special examination of the Airport Board's expenditures, hiring practices, and structure was presented in a press conference where he was joined by Knochelmann, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, and Boone County Judge-Executive Gary Moore. Though any change would require legislative approval in Frankfort, Edelen also recommended an 11-member board with 3 members each from Kenton, Boone, and Campbell Counties, one appointed by the Kentucky governor, and then one from the Ohio governor, Hamilton County, and the City of Cincinnati. 

Knochelmann had publicly supported the possibility of adding Ohio members and said Monday that he would still like to see that, but legal opinion locally prevents it, he said. The possibility that appointing Ohio residents to the board was illegal was first discussed in October at a Kenton County Mayors Group meeting where Arlinghaus circulated a proposed resolution for each city to consider opposing structural changes to the airport board. Arlinghaus had appointed two Ohio residents to voting roles at the board. Draud said that he thought it was illegal.

"You have to take an oath of office that you live in the state," Draud said at the time. "For me, it amazes me that the state auditor doesn't know more about the state constitution and he's in a state position. If the Kentucky General Assembly wants to change the constitution, then they can allow people from other states to be on the airport board. I can't understand the absurdity of making that recommendation."

Knochelmann said at the time that then-County Attorney Garry Edmondson was looking into it and "thought it was an issue".

On Monday, the conclusion was that Ohio had to be excluded.

Edelen disagreed. In a statement issued to The River City News, the auditor said that his office's general counsel had throughly researched the issue and concluded that Ohio residents can serve. He said the Attorney General's office agrees. 

"In addition, Kentucky law does not require KCAB members to take either the Constitutional oath or any other oath," Edelen said. "Various statutes require certain public servants to take the oath, including code enforcement board members, planning commission members and school board members. No statute – including the one used to establish the KCAB – requires a local air board member to take the oath. Further, because the General Assembly would have to approve any change in the KCAB structure, any ambiguities in the law could be addressed in that legislation, as was done when it established the board that oversees the Ohio River Bridges Project between the states of Kentucky and Indiana."

"But as I have said from the beginning, I believe change needs to come from the local level. I would encourage local officials to reexamine this matter and understand that this is nothing more than an effort to derail much-needed reform at CVG in order to preserve status quo and contain political power among a small faction of individuals in Kenton County."

(L-R) County Commissioners Joe Nienaber, Beth Sewell, and Jon Draud/RCN

Meanwhile, back in Covington, Draud peppered Knochelmann with questions and his trademark folksy jabs. "Congratulations to the attorneys that agree with me," Draud said. "Maybe those attorneys should meet with Adam Edelen so they can explain to our state auditor what's constitutional and what's not constitutional." Draud called the recommendations "very troubling" and "very unfortunate" that Ohio would not be included. Though he maintains that under current law it is illegal for them to vote, Draud also supports putting Ohio votes on the board, he said. "I think it's kind of ironic when it was such a campaign issue and you promised it would be," Draud told Knochelmann. "You really have castrated Ohio's voice on CVG."

As for Boone County's two votes, Draud also wanted tougher talks about sharing payroll tax derived from the airport. Though CVG is managed by Kenton County, it is located in Boone County. "It's a mistake to give Boone two votes instead of one vote without them sharing some of the payroll tax," Draud said. "While we're giving them something they should give us something." Draud suggested that the revenue from Boone could be put towards removing the 911 dispatch center fee for Kenton residents. 

Knochelmann said that he agrees on the payroll tax and Ohio resident issues, but the latter at least would require a change in the state constitution, he said. The former's legal issues have not been explored. "Let's focus on getting the structure fixed," Knochelmann said. Kenton Co. has dramatically benefited from the success of the airport. How many organizations are based just a stone's throw from Boone County and they are there because of the airport. I just think if we get into an aggressive attack on their income sources, we're probably going to get nothing more than a no. The key to it is, we benefit, they benefit, we want the continued success of the airport and make sure that the structure is set up for the next several decades."

Draud said that there is nothing wrong with the current structure and that the previous issues related to spending and travel were "some individuals' bad judgment". Knochelmann argued that it was the fractured structure that led to the accountability issues that permitted the expenditures.

Newly elected County Commissioner Joe Nienaber expressed that as more access is granted to surrounding counties in relation to the Airport Board, Kenton County should be making more of an effort to gain influence in regional entities like the Port Authority in Cincinnati. "This might be a first step for us in getting influence on other regional issues," he said, directly referencing the Brent Spence Bridge corridor project.

Commissioner Beth Sewell said that regional cooperation on this issue could help with other issues down the road like the further consolidation of 911 emergency dispatch as more counties join a singular system. "This may bode well for us down the road with other regional efforts," she said.

The resolution of support for the recommended changes passed 3-1 with Draud dissenting. "I hope we don't have this discussion for another eleven months," he said in voting no. "I've had all the discussion I want about the Airport Board."

Story & photos by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News