Sunday, February 19, 2012

Airport lacks in Authority: Monroe Regional (KMLU) only one in Louisiana without a board

Cleve Norrell

Monroe Regional Airport is the only commercial airport in the state that doesn't have an independent board or airport authority to oversee its operations.

Monroe is the exception because the City Council years ago decided to retain its control over the airport.

But an airport authority could help the airport get more done faster, according to former airport manager Cleve Norrell. An independent board also could keep political interests out of the oversight of airport operations, Norrell said. Norrell was fired as airport director Nov. 22.

"Oftentimes I thought I would like to have one. ... It does slow things down being a part of Public Works," Norrell said. "It would be easier and quicker to get things done if there was an airport authority, but it's not necessarily a cure-all."

However, he noted that while he was airport manager for more than 20 years, he enjoyed the management powers with which his supervisors trusted him and that they rarely "micromanaged."

The Monroe Regional Airport has never had anything other than an advisory board, and even that was eliminated several years ago by a city official, the late Horace Smith, said Dwight Del Vines, the city's economic development officer.

"In effect, the City Council is the board for the airport. The airport manager reports to (Public Works Director) Tom Janway who reports to the mayor," Vines said.

Interim manager Ron Phillips has taken over operations since Norrell's termination.

Many regional airports have boards that represent the entire region, not limited to the city, Vines said. Monroe has never had that type of board.

That's because city officials have preferred to retain their authority over airport operations and funds, The News-Star files show.

The city in the early 2000s turned down a suggestion by former U.S. Rep. John Cooksey, who had pushed for the city to have an airport authority so it could obtain up to $50 million in federal funds to establish an intermodal transportation facility.

Cooksey, as vice chairman of the Aviation Subcommittee in Congress, proposed an authority that would have included one member selected by the Monroe mayor, one selected by the mayor of West Monroe, one member selected by the mayor of an outlying municipality and one by the Ouachita Parish Police Jury.

"We would have had an independent board made up of business people, not politicians. That was all the FAA asked in return for them giving us upwards of $50 million," Cooksey said. Under that plan, an air authority would have had bonding power and management control separate from the city, although the city would continue to own the airport as an asset, files state.

Mayor Jamie Mayo, who at that time was the Monroe City Council chairman, instead proposed the council create an air authority for which four of the five governing spots would be taken or appointed by the mayor and the council. Cooksey refused to support such a plan.

"It was one of the biggest disappointments of my time in Congress," Cooskey said.
Other authorities

Of the seven commercial airports in the state, Alexandria, Baton Rouge, Lafayette, Lake Charles, New Orleans and Shreveport have independent boards or commissions, comprised of various members of their communities who are appointed by different governing bodies.

For instance, Lafayette Regional Airport's commission consists of a seven-member volunteer commission that carries out operations and marketing-related tasks. The commissioners work with airport staff to coordinate business development with potential customers, the airport's website states.

Commission Chairman Paul Guilbeau said the commission has broad powers in overseeing operations, but the airport is owned by residents and the city-parish still retains the final say on bonding and borrowing issues.

In Lake Charles, the airport authority consists of five members appointed by the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury to serve five-year terms, and in Shreveport, marketing and public relations manager Mark Crawford said his airport authority has a five-member board of directors that deals with issues such as airline, rental car and cargo space leases. It's the board's job to approve or deny any new leases, he said.

"Purely in my opinion, I think five more brains looking at it than just one or two ... seven heads are better than one," he said.

But according to Norrell, not all airport authorities are truly independent.

For example, the Louis Armstrong International Airport is governed by the New Orleans Aviation Board, whose members are appointed by the mayor of New Orleans, its website states. The Baton Rouge airport is owned by the parish and overseen by a commission of about 16 commissioners. Though having so many commissioners may seem cumbersome, Guilbeau said it may help provide varied perspectives to weigh in on airport affairs.

Vines said he didn't want to speculate about what might have happened if Monroe had made different decisions about the airport in 2001 when the idea of an airport authority was turned down by the City Council. He added that the framework a city chooses for its airport probably depends on several factors that are somewhat different in each airport.

"I think the structure of present management oversight is adequate," Vines said. "I think the business community communicates effectively with the airport management about their needs and concerns. The ability of the airport to deliver the services desired by the community is primarily limited by the number of passengers, the amount of freight, etc. and other general economic considerations in the operation of the airport, not by the structure of airport oversight."

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