Mounting scrutiny from town and county officials about the Jackson Hole Airport board came to a head at a meeting Monday when Mayor Mark Barron asked that two elected officials be added to the five-member board.
Barron requested a motion to add one Town Council member and one county commissioner, each of whom would have full voting powers. They would sit on the board that oversees operations and a $6.9 million budget for the airstrip and terminal in Grand Teton National Park.
Commissioner Ben Ellis agreed with the mayor, noting that the 1968 joint-powers agreement that governs the airport board is outdated.
He said a motion wasn’t needed. Instead he suggested giving town and county attorneys direction to draft an updated agreement that would include Barron’s proposal to change the makeup of the board. The mayor agreed.
“The town and county have fiduciary responsibility over the airport board,” Barron said Tuesday. “It’s a town and county airport.”
He stressed that his proposal was not a reflection on the board’s professionalism.
But when pressed, Barron said he had some concern over airport finances, such as staff travel expenses and money earmarked to hire a public relations firm, among other issues. Those emerged in airport budget discussions between the town and county.
Both government agencies are tasked with approving the airport’s budget each year and appointing board members.
Under state statute, County Attorney Keith Gingery said, every municipality and county has the power of an airport authority and can delegate that power to an independent board.
Some communities even have airport boards made up entirely of county commissioners or town council members. That is the case in Dubois, Gingery said.
Jackson Hole’s airport board has some independence, meaning it can do things like hire and fire employees. The mayor’s proposal is the latest in a number of actions by the town and county that indicate both governments are looking to provide more oversight.
Before Barron’s suggestion for an expanded board, elected officials voted to remove $100,000 from the airport’s expected $6.9 million operating expenditures for the next fiscal year.
On the Town Council, the vote on the budget cut was unanimous. The commissioners approved the cut 3-2, with Commission Chairman Paul Volgeheim and Commissioner Hank Phibbs voting against.
That was the first time Barron had seen the town and county subtract any amount from the airport’s budget in his six terms as mayor.
The budget scrutiny and potential shake-up of the airport board comes less than three months after a story in the News&Guide revealed a lavish, $35,000 trip the entire board and airport director takes to Hawaii each year for an aviation conference.
In April the board decided to send only two board members and the director on the trip, ending a practice that had lasted for at least a decade.
At the meeting, Barron’s suggestion caught some people off guard, including airport board members.
“The proposal for additional board members, that was a complete surprise,” Jim Waldrop, chairman of the airport board, said Tuesday. “There were many in that room that were surprised.”
The board supports updating the 45-year-old joint powers agreement,
“We’re always willing to have discussions,” Waldrop said. “At the same time, I think that it brings with it some unintended consequences.”
He declined to go into detail.
The timing of Barron’s proposition made it seem that the airport’s budget was the cause, Waldrop said.
“The board was surprised, confused and disappointed in tying those two together,” he said. “There was an implication that made us very uncomfortable.”
Barron said the proposal was not a spur-of-the-moment one.
“This wasn’t a snap thing,” he said. “The last time the joint powers agreement was explored was in 1968. This was a forward-looking request.”
His idea is to expand the board to seven members, although officials could wait until current board members’ terms expire and then replace them with town and county officials.
Waldrop hopes the board will stay as it is.
And that may happen.
Some commissioners already are opposed to the expansion, including Volgelheim. Still, he said, there are some issues with the budget and the “working environment at the airport” that need to be worked out. He did not go into more detail.
“It’s one of our more critical boards in the community,” Vogelheim said. “We’d like to see all the members of the board stay on the board.”
Phibbs sided with the chairman.
“I believe that a majority of commissioners won’t support that approach,” Phibbs said Tuesday. “The folks who serve on that board are hardworking, dedicated folks. I don’t think we need to make any structural changes to the airport board.”
Gingery said he will work with Town Attorney Audrey Cohen-Davis to come up with an updated joint powers agreement. Town and county officials could vote then whether to change the makeup of the board.
At least one former Jackson Hole politician sees adding elected officials to the board as a step forward.
“Having been in the Legislature, I’ve learned that change in Wyoming is very slow,” Pete Jorgenson said.
“It’s a much more healthy situation, from my perspective,” he said of adding the two seats. “Most importantly, because it’s in the national park and the impacts on the national park, which forms the basis of our economy, are important.”