Brainerd lakes area local government personalities gathered in one room Tuesday for a rare joint meeting centered on a single topic — the airport’s future.
The Brainerd City Council met with the Crow Wing County Board and the Brainerd Lakes Airport Commission on the county campus. It could have been billed as a family custody issue. The city and county board jointly own the airport. Legal opinions from the city, county and airport have concluded the airport commission is an autonomous board acting independently with the city and county having control over its budget. Both have liaison members and appoint others to serve on the airport commission. But Tuesday, the gathered elected officials considered if it’s time for one or the other to take control. No decisions were made, but the group did ask for a small committee to look at the autonomy question.
Brainerd Council President Mary Koep, who called for the joint session, said she was fine with the city or the county taking control of an airport that is an important asset. Looking to the future, she said the community with the first-class airport is the one that will prosper.
“It isn’t any secret the last year has been a rocky one,” Koep said of the airport, which was at the center of controversy for conflict of interest issues and saw a shake up in management. “I think we’ve all been frustrated and at times angry.”
Crow Wing County Commissioner Rachel Reabe Nystrom, who serves as the county liaison to the airport, said one of the “most beneficial things out of this very painful series of months for the airport commission is this very meeting.”
All parties appeared to agree the joint session was overdue and should be repeated. County commissioner Phil Trusty said the discussion should have happened years ago.
Nystrom got a few laughs when she said the county accepted and would take the airport. But Nystrom said she wasn’t sure everyone on the city council agreed. Council member Bob Olson said he’d give it a lot of thought but wasn’t in a position to make that decision at the meeting.
There were a number of suggestions for improvements, but not everyone was convinced a wholesale change was needed. Nystrom said there were mistakes and in retrospect the airport commission should have been advised by an attorney in decision making. There were mistakes, she said, but a more committed, talented group of people could not be found.
“If mistakes were made, and mistakes were made, there was never malicious intent,” Nystrom said. “I think we can do a better job. We are doing a better job.”
Nystrom said when the six-member airport commission meets, members look at what’s in the best interest of the airport. “Our constituents don’t give a flip where the border is. God help us if we don’t put our pettiness aside and work together.”
Suggestions for changes included expanding the number of people serving on the airport commission, although not everyone agreed that would be helpful.
“I do think these two bodies should make some ordinance changes as far as the autonomy,” Olson said. Olson suggested the city or county attorney should represent the airport in its legal matters so it isn’t paying outside attorney fees. Koep suggested an advisory commission could be put in place as the city or county took control.
Kevin Goedker, Brainerd council member, said with both entities having an equal interest in the airport he could see future issues if the city or the county had less input but still provided funding. Koep said in some ways it boils down to trust. But Dale Parks, Brainerd council member, said trust could also be in the mix now as some of the issues revolving at the airport have been blown out of proportion.
“I don’t believe change is necessary,” said council member Lucy Nesheim.
Mayor James Wallin, who spent 20 years serving on the airport commission, was in favor of leaving the commission as is. Wallin said if the last year was taken out of the equation, the airport has been operated efficiently and has expanded and improved its facilities.
The Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport is a premier airport outside Minneapolis, and is just behind Duluth and Fargo for greatest runway structure, said Rick Adair, interim airport manager. Andy Larson, airport commission chairman, agreed a better job could be done at communication. But he also noted only one person contacted him during all the controversy to seek answers to questions and that was new airport commission member Jeff Czeczok. Larson said Olson was correct there was a good old boy’s network as the commission was insulated. More effort is ongoing to be more tied in to the community, Larson said.
For others at the meeting, there are many unanswered questions.
Brainerd Council member Kelly Bevans said he still isn’t clear what happened at the airport with the termination of the former manager and has never received a clarification.
“I think it’s hard to say we can separate what happened from going forward because I don’t know what happened,” Bevans said. He said it was really difficult to make a decision on the limited information and then to decide how to fix it.
Larson said his goal is to have a more detailed answer within the next week or two. “That is my objective,” Larson said.
Crow Wing County Commissioner Paul Thiede said for him the question of the airport commission’s autonomy and how the county responds to it is as important as the detail on the airport issues. Thiede said they all screw up in terms of decision making every day.
The airport grand opening after the terminal remodeling project is planned at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 14.
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at 855-5852 or firstname.lastname@example.org.