HEBRON, Ky. – One Ohio leader is challenging the Kenton County Airport Board's effectiveness after a year of newsworthy ups and downs, and is demanding change as well as a more prominent voice for Ohio on the board.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, wrote a letter to fellow Democrat, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, to revisit the structure of the board that runs the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Ohioans makes up 60 percent of all departing passengers at the airport, Kentucky residents make up 30 percent, while Indiana residents make up the remaining 10 percent.
Yet, Brown said, Ohio representatives lack an executive voice, giving Kentucky the monopoly on decision-making for the airport.
“CVG has played an important role in the growth of Cincinnati’s economic development. With new carriers, more passengers and an increase in freight operations, it’s clear that Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are excellent places to live and do business,” Brown said.
“Despite these positive developments, there’s still work to do. We must fully utilize CVG’s potential and its role as an asset for the region,” he said.
“It’s crucial that representatives of all users of the airport have a meaningful voice on the board,” he said.
The airport is one of the region’s largest economic hubs, generating more than 16,000 direct jobs and $2.7 billion in spending by CVG operations, construction and visitors annually—creating an annual $3.6 billion economic impact on the community, according to a 2012 study.
“[They] call the shots on every dollar spent on airport operations, negotiate with airlines on new flights and decide how airport land and facilities will be developed,” Brown continued in his March 12 letter.
While Beshear does have the executive authority to restructure the board if he sees fit, he is saying, ‘Not so fast.’
Beshear’s office said that it would not entertain the idea of changes in board’s structure until the state auditor’s investigation into the airport board is completed.
“The Northern Kentucky Airport is very important to the economic vitality of both Kentucky and southern Ohio, and Gov. Beshear will continue to work to ensure the airport’s long-term success. It would be inappropriate to consider any changes to the board structure until after the state auditor has completed his audit of that group,” Kerri Richardson, Beshear’s spokeswoman said.
Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen has been investigating the airport board’s spending for the past four months.
In November 2013, Edelen announced his office would conduct a special examination into board spending and travel, giving much focus on the board’s polices and governance structures as well.
Edelen’s report is due out this spring.
Arlinghaus Defends His Decisions
Arlinghaus, who appoints a total of 13 members to the board—seven voting and six non-voting—defended the airport board’s structure and diversity, which he contends includes an abundance of Cincinnati representation.
“Sen. Brown is grossly misinformed. All members, advisory board as well as executive [committee] members jointly serve on all board committees. That said, in my three years as judge executive, the executive committee has always accepted the recommendation presented to them,” Arlinghaus said.
“In other words, the [Ohio] members’ votes have counted. The notion Ohio has no voice has not been properly reported. We need an accurate reporting of the facts,” he debated.
"I have worked hard to appoint individuals to the airport board who represent areas outside of Kenton County, including Cincinnati and Hamilton County,” Arlinghaus said.
He appointed three new members to the board in February, filling the roles vacated by the former Kenton County Airport Board chairman, vice chair and an executive committee member, all of whom abruptly resigned the same week. Those new members—Bill Robinson III, Kathy Collins and Chad Summe—were sworn in at Monday’s board meeting to four-year terms.
And with three more board members to be appointed in the near future, Arlinghaus said he hopes to bring more diversity to the board including more Cincinnati-based leaders.
Robinson, the new board chairman, cited proof of Ohio’s voice on the board.
“Paul A. McElhinney, president and CEO of GE Aviation-Services in Cincinnati, is a resident of Hamilton County and was appointed by Kenton County Judge Executive Steve Arlinghaus on Jan. 21, 2013, to serve as a ‘voting member’ of our CVG board,” Robinson said, who grew up in the Queen City's Mt. Auburn, Coryville and Clifton neighborhoods.
"I love Cincinnati—it's a wide stance, but I have one foot on each side of the river and I'm committed to regionalism," Robinson, an attorney with Cincinnati-based law firm Frost Brown Todd, said of his appointment to the board.
Arlinghaus’s other most recent appointee, Collins, the vice chair, is a senior private banker at Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank. Moving up from the advisory committee on the airport board, she is the fourth female vice chair.
“We need Cincinnati’s involvement with our airport and we need their support,'' Arlinghaus said. "It’s been important for me to reach out.”
CVG needs a “broader regional approach to leadership. If you benefit one side of the river, it benefits the other side,” said Arlinghaus, who also appointed Cincinnati businessman Chad Summe, 33, of Fort Mitchell, Ky., to the executive committee.
"Too many times, people have viewed the Ohio River as a barrier, I view it as a corridor that connects us together.”
But Kenton County Judge Executive candidate Kris Knochelmann, who is running against Arlinghaus in May, said that his opponent is not leading the board in the most efficient manner.
“I understand the frustration our local legislators have felt with our airport recently. However, I believe a study of board structure should be handled locally and then changed in Frankfort with legislative changes," he said, although he does not believe that the county should lose the upper hand.
“Kenton County should not lose control of the CVG board, but having one individual, no matter who they are, responsible for appointing members is ripe for abuse. Sadly, the lack of leadership I’ve seen from our Judge Executive Steve Arlinghaus has led us to this point," Knochelmann said.
Ky. Lawmaker Proposes Task Force To Clean Up Board
A Kentucky representative is proposing the establishment of a task force to make recommendations to change its structure.
Rep. Addia Wuchner introduced a bill that would take an eraser to the board’s structure and begin fresh with a governing task force—a sentiment shared by others on the board, including Nathan Smith.
“I would blow it up and start it all over,” Smith, an advisory board member appointed by Beshear in 2009, said in August. “It’s not set up correctly in today’s government environment for an airport.”
HRC 183, if passed, would establish the CVG Governance Task Force, which would meet during the 2014 interim and issue a report to by Dec. 1, 2014. The task force would be charged with making recommendations for administrative or statutory changes to improve the governance structure of the airport.
Arlinghaus strongly opposes any tampering to the board’s makeup.
“I have great concern that these calls to change the governance structure at the airport, including the resolution currently before the Kentucky Legislature, are attempts to take CVG from its rightful owner — the people of Kenton County. These efforts, if successful, could eliminate or significantly diminish Kenton County’s governance of the airport and allow other counties or governmental agencies to obtain control of the airport,'' he said.
“I recommend that all Kenton County residents immediately contact their state legislators and do the same thing,” Arlinghaus wrote in his blog.
Round 2: Ohio vs. Kentucky
This isn’t the first time that regional power struggles have come up regarding the airport board.
In December, Arlinghaus addressed the board during its monthly meeting with a stern warning regarding spending, however, it was intertwined with what were perceived as digs toward Ohio.
In his letter, Arlinghaus not only told board members to cut luxury expenses, but also insisted that they end the negativity, and assured them that Cincinnati will never control the board.
It was the jab at Cincinnati that didn’t sit well with non-voting, advisory board member O’dell Owens, president of Cincinnati State Technical and Community College. He is the sole board member appointed by the City of Cincinnati.
“I’m not going to let anyone put Cincinnati down,” said Owens. “No one messes with my city.”
Arlinghaus asked the board to not let the conversation distract them, saying he was proud of his appointments.
"I will continue to take a regional approach when making future appointments to the board. But please know that, as long as I am Judge Executive, I will do all in my power to oppose any efforts to wrest control of the airport from Kenton County,'' he wrote. "We cannot allow these personal and political agendas to succeed."
Owens did not let that remark slide passed him easily.
“It’s a cheap shot,” Owens argued in the meeting. “And I’m not going to allow it.”
“Cincinnati has never tried taking over this airport ... And I resent that. I have never advocated that this airport should be under the control of Cincinnati,” he said.
Board member David Siebenburgen, a private investor, spoke up at that meeting as well, saying the letter wasn’t exactly the warmest invitation to Cincinnati.
Power Struggle's Impact On Region
The airport’s impact on Northern Kentucky and the Commonwealth cannot be overstated, Edelen said.
“CVG serves a metropolitan area of 2.1 million people and is critical to the economic vitality of Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati,” Edelen said. “Making sure this asset is run efficiently and effectively is a necessary step toward attracting businesses, adding jobs and growing the economy of the region.”
“This region has seen significant economic growth recently… it’s vital to that continued and sustainable growth is a healthy airport."
Edelen says the airport is at an “important crossroads” and he wants to play a role in ensuring its success.
“The airport is at an important crossroads in its 65-year history. My goal is to provide a roadmap for improving operations and fostering growth,” he said regarding his upcoming report.
Brown’s letter to Beshear is below.
The Kentucky governor has not responded to the Ohio, U.S. senator yet.
March 12, 2014
700 Capitol Avenue, Suite 100
Frankfort, Kentucky 40601
Dear Governor Beshear:
I write regarding recent reports on the Kenton County Airport Board. The announcement of the resignation of the Chairman of the Board comes on the heels of a scathing series of articles in the Cincinnati Enquirer outlining the makeup and actions of this board. This announcement provides a long overdue opportunity to revisit the composition of the Executive Board so it can best serve the Greater Cincinnati region in the highly competitive commercial aviation market. Doing so will help the region’s economic competitiveness.
In the past, I have expressed my concerns and spoken with many community members about the need for the Board to represent all of the airport’s users. By doing so, the Board can better stem the reduction in flights, increase the airport’s competitiveness, and ultimately reduce what have consistently been some of the nation’s highest-priced airline tickets. It is my understanding that the Board’s geographic diversity has improved, but recent reports clearly indicate that efforts to improve the effectiveness of the board remain. For example, while it is estimated that more than 60% of passengers departing from the airport are Ohio residents, Ohio representatives on the Airport’s Advisory board do not have an actual vote in the Board’s decision-making process. It is time to ensure that representatives of all users of the airport have a meaningful voice on the Board.
There have been positive developments at the airport—new carriers, more passengers, an increase in freight operations—but I believe that we must seize this opportunity to best utilize CVG’s potential and its role as an asset for the region. Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky are excellent places to live and do business, but it is imperative that the airport remain domestically and internationally competitive and reflective of the quality of the region. I appreciate your attention to this matter and look forward to working with you and other stakeholders in Ohio and Kentucky on this critically important issue.
United States Senator
Cc: The Honorable John Kasich