HEBRON, Ky. -- The state auditor’s investigation of the airport confirmed what we’ve known for years: Its management is “dysfunctional,” rife with “confusion and conflict,” ruled by “political influence,” and crippled by a “power struggle.” All the while, board members have been traveling, eating and drinking in an “excessive” manner.
Cynics have used a more colloquial description of the governing board — it's a good old boy network.
However you choose to describe it, the people who oversee one of the area’s most important economic assets have been distracted from what should be the priority, which is to improve service at an airport that’s seen its business cut by more than half in the last few years.
That’s why Kentucky state auditor Adam Edelen’s recommendation, announced Tuesday, is right on: Blow up the board and start over.
Specifically, take the board-making power out of the hands of one person and spread it to the others who have a stake in the airport’s success including the state of Ohio, Cincinnati, Hamilton County, the state of Kentucky, Boone County and Campbell County.
Edelen has recommended dumping the seven-member board structure and replacing it with 11 members, with three members appointed by the Ohio governor, the mayor of Cincinnati and the Hamilton County commissioners.
One person, the judge-executive of Kenton County, the county’s top elected official, holds the power to appoint all of the board’s voting members. That might have made sense back in 1947, when the airport started operating. But now, nearly seven decades later, with ease of air travel an essential part of doing business in a global economy, the arrangement is hopelessly parochial.
Edelen’s recommendations are on point, but they could go even further. The board should be made up of people with senior-level experience in managing complex businesses, not people who happen to be inside the power structure in Kenton County.
For years, appointments to this critical governing board have been largely made by political patronage. Kenton Judge-executive Steve Arlinghaus made a list of what makes an ideal board member. The list, included in the auditor’s report, mentioned this prerequisite: “Current supporter or future supporter of my campaign.” Spreading the board appointments to other stakeholders would help avoid this type of political dealing.
The airport is a $100 million business, but more important than its revenue are the connections it provides to the region’s businesses. Those connections, the number of daily departures, have dropped by 70 percent since 2005 while the board quibbled with its CEOs, jaunted off to Italy, Marrakesh and the Canadian Rockies, and hired multiple PR firms to manage the backlash.
Even Monday night, on the eve of the auditor’s report, board members bickered over who would comment publicly on the report and over hiring yet another PR firm to improve its image.
The dithering isn’t new to this version of the board; it’s a culture that was detailed by The Kentucky Post more than 15 years ago.
More PR will not change the culture. It will take political courage on the part of Kentucky’s legislators, particularly the Northern Kentucky delegation, and the governor, to reconstruct the airport board into something that can restore the airport into a competitive asset that can be a driver of the region’s economy. The board has been distracted from its mission and as a result, the entire region has suffered.It can be fixed, but it will take the political will to push for real change.
David Holthaus is deputy managing editor of WCPO.com.