Airport Advisory Council meetings are not usually the most enthralling spectacles as volunteer government advisory panels go: the five council members and their alternate meet monthly on the top floor of the Airport Corporate Center, hear a report from the airport director, hear from the air traffic control tower manager, review airport fuel sales for the past month and other routine items.
But Chairman Daryl Hickman and Vice-chairman Les Abend of the advisory board startled the County Commission–which appoints them–earlier this month when both offered serious criticism of Roy Sieger, the airport director, over airport noise concerns, which have been roiling communities surrounding the airport for the past few years. Both claimed the advisory committee had been proposing measures to address residents’ concerns, but that Sieger had not been responsive.
Alleged non-responsiveness over noise wasn’t the only issue: the board and Sieger are simply not seeing eye to eye, while the board and the county administration might as well have been in different worlds. “I have little or no knowledge of the concerns of this board,” County Administrator Jerry Cameron said flatly this afternoon.
Today was the first opportunity for the full advisory board to be at the same table with Sieger since that commission meeting. And because of the criticism leveled at one of his top managers at that meeting, Cameron, who does not routinely attend advisory board meetings, showed up for this one as an entirely different issue took center stage: the lack of a strategic plan or a business for the airport. Some advisory board members are seeing operations run more haphazardly than along a defined plan, and in directions that may not be grounded on fresh, valid data.
Hickman went through the majority of the agenda in 15 minutes before turning to what turned into a serious point of contention: The 15,000 square foot terminal and administrative office building in the works, which Hickman and some of the other board members see as emblematic of a plan divorced from reality. Hickman was concerned about the numbers: for example, based on the current master plans, about half the space in the terminal would be used for the airport’s six employees. “We’ve never had a terminal building built at this airport,” Sieger said. “We’re looking to the future,” He said the space will also include a “big conference area.
Like a senator at a hearing, Hickman posed question after question to Sieger, who answered them one after the other, at times defensively: “I don’t know where we’re going with this,” he said. “I guess you can ask all the questions you want but at the end of the day the Board of County Commissioners has already approved” the design. Hickman persisted, saying “a number of things” have changed since the plan was first proposed, including financial and construction burdens on the county that did not exist before the terminal plan was first proposed, such as the need for a new sheriff’s operations center (even though those needs are drawn from entirely different money pots). Hickman said it wasn’t a bad thing for reconsidering the plans.
“It is an optics issue when the county has all these financial needs and we can show maybe a justification for this scale of a building,” Hickman said. “But in talking to airport users, there’s a concern that it’s going to be too big of a building.” He added: “The data in the master plan that projects what the size of this building should be, is flawed.”
The design is almost 90 percent done, though Sieger did not know how much had actually been spent so far. He said if the design were altered, it would cost additional dollars, and the Florida Department of Transportation, which is paying for the design, will not fund the redesign.
Then Cameron came to the plan’s defense. “We don’t put ad valorem money into it, it is an enterprise fund, completely separate to it,” Cameron said. “I want to stay focused on whether or not the resources we’re putting in are appropriate for projected growth.” He added: “It clouds the issue if we’re talking about something that’s happening in a different universe, which is the Sheriff’s Operations Center.”
Yet Hickman had merely warmed up the issue: Wayne Harrison, another advisory board member, said when he joined the board he studied the airport master plan published in 2015. It raised several questions in his mind, not least its datedness. He had another concern: the master plan, though a critical element for drawing funding, represented a “catch-all” for any further plans. But when he asked for a strategic plan that outlined how the airport was to be developed, with what priorities–”what this thing will look like when it’s all going to be done”–there was none, nor was there a business plan. It was more veiled criticism of Sieger’s management.
Hickman cited as an example the dearth of hangars at the airport, and the waiting list thick with people who’d like to be based locally but can’t, because of a lack of hangars. There are fewer than 100 planes based at the airport. “The way that the numbers are being generated is also a concern” he said, the numbers being based not on plans “domiciled” locally. (He saw no sense in placing a trucking company in a hangar when a hangar came open.) “We need to go back and look at this again with clear eyes,” he said, and with eyes that look at strategic goals and existing challenges, such as the shortage of hangars. “Take a pause here, let’s go back, take a look at the numbers, do the numbers justify what we’re asking for.”
“I want to see a plan,” he concluded, specifying that a five-year plan should be developed.
“The hangar issue is universal,” Cameron said, citing either availability or cost as reasons. ‘It may be appropriate to raise the price of hangars maybe slightly, maybe significantly, but you won’t know until you do that market study.” He said it was an issue “worth looking into.” Cameron then veered to board members’ roles, noting that the bylaws don’t clearly define those roles, nor the nature of their relationship to the county administration. The juxtaposition of Cameron’s remarks, going from hangar issues to the seemingly unrelated matter of board members’ roles, raised another question from Harrison: to empower the board members or do the reverse? Cameron’s answer was not specific.
When the discussion returned to airport matters, Frank Ayers came to Sieger’s defense, projecting growth ahead, and therefore more airport activity, especially corporate jets, whose occupants he described as “fat cats,” but “they’re the ones who hire 1,000 and 2,000 and 3,000 people.” Martin Stohr, the alternate board member, also came to the defense of Sieger. (The advisory board appears divided on the Sieger matter, with Ayers and Agnes Lightfoot on one side and Hickman, Abend and Harrison on the other. Toward the end of the meeting Ayers and Lightfoot asked that in future, board members addressing the county commission clearly state whether they are offering their own opinions or that of the board, the latter having to be ratified by vote beforehand.)
Only then Hickman moved on to the noise issue on the agenda, and immediately leveled criticism at airport documentation, available for public inspection online, for being inaccurate and still not corrected despite recommendations from the board that it be so. “If we asked for this to be changed in April, how come it hasn’t been done?”
“I haven’t gotten to it,” Sieger said.
Cameron didn’t like Hickman’s suggestion that nothing had been done since the commission meeting where noise issues were the focus of the agenda. “There isn’t a formal relationship between this board and county administration,” Cameron said, suggesting that a lack of communications may be at fault (though Sieger is listed as the liaison between the commission and the advisory board). There have been discussions with Sieger, Cameron said. The administrator has asked for a meeting with all the flight schools’ officials. And he said he asked for today’s meeting, though it was a regularly scheduled meeting of the advisory board.
“We are exploring some things,” Cameron said. “I personally like the change of the times” when pilots are in training around the airport. “There’s no doubt that we can make some improvements in procedures. Some are facilities improvement. At the end of the day we can’t guarantee that it’s going to get the results” that neighbors want.
Cameron said he’d gotten the copy of the board’s bylaws only yesterday. He described them as “anemic,” and “the formula for confusion.” He said “it’s inconceivable” that the board doesn’t have a formal, defined relationship between the advisory board and the airport director. Les Abend, an advisory board member, said he’d been an advocate of changing the bylaws. Cameron said he’ll ask county commission to direct County Attorney Al Hadeed to review and rewrite the bylaws. “The board has to instruct him. I see no problem with that, and I see no problem with him getting an informal head start,” Cameron said of Hadeed. But before that step, Cameron wants to sit with “a group of you,” meaning the advisory board, and with Sieger. “Anybody that reads this will know that it’s deficient. It really doesn’t say much,” Cameron said of the bylaws.
One possibility: assigning a county commissioner to be the liaison with the advisory board.
Yet another issue arose toward the end of the meeting: the lack of a policy requiring pilots to tie down their planes, especially in inclement weather. That led to another tense exchange between Hickman and Sieger.
“Message received,” Cameron said.
Cameron said in order for the advisory board to “function well, it really needs to have a good relationship with the county commission and the airport director.”
Clearly, that’s not the case at the moment.