HEBRON, Ky. – Kentucky’s state auditor wants to give Ohio leaders a louder voice on the Kenton County Airport Board, but will Kentucky legislators be enthusiastic about changing the way things have been done at the airport for about 70 years?
Sharing power over the region’s largest airport with Ohioans could be a tough sell with Northern Kentucky legislators. But they’ll likely be hearing from Gov. Steve Beshear, who says he’ll push for change.
“The audit raises valid questions about the current board structure, and I will work with the General Assembly on the auditor’s recommendations,” Beshear said.
State auditor Adam Edelen, in a report released Tuesday, recommended an overhaul of the board’s structure. He recommended moving from a seven-member voting board, all of whom are now appointed by the Kenton County judge-executive, to an 11-member board that would include three appointments from Ohio and three from neighboring Northern Kentucky counties.
“You can’t change the culture without changing the structure,” Edelen said. “If [it’s] only operating as an appendage of the judge executive in Kenton County, it won’t run for the full benefit of the region.”
Specifically, he recommended that these officials have appointment power:
• Kenton County judge executive: Three appointments.
• Boone County judge executive: Two appointments.
• Campbell County judge executive: One appointment.
• Kentucky governor: Two board appointments
• Ohio governor: One board appointment
• Mayor of Cincinnati: One board appointment.
• Hamilton County Board of Commissioners: One board appointment.
Boone County state representative Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, is currently drafting an airport board restructuring bill for the upcoming legislative session, a bill that she says will replicate one from last session.
Wuchner’s bill last session would have set up the CVG Governance Task Force, which would be charged with making recommendations for administrative or statutory changes to improve the governance structure of the airport.
“The history of the airport and the airport board aligns itself with a sense of ownership,” she said. However, the location of the airport in Boone County and the impact there demands a greater voice on the board.
“We need to have an airport board that serves Northern Kentucky and this region going forward.”
But Kenton County lawmaker Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, says he would have trouble embracing Edelen’s recommendations. He called the effort to change the airport board a “work in progress.”
“I don’t know it’s so severely broken that we have to start from scratch,” Simpson said.
Citizens of Kenton County, he said, paid for the airport, which was the basis of the board structure when it was created in the 1940s—and they should be the ones who make this decision not Frankfort, he argued.
If other parts of the region want a vested right to appoint, they should pay “reparations” to Kenton County for its purchase of the airport, the Kenton County representative said. “What’s fair is fair,” Simpson said.
He says the airport board should be given an opportunity to make amends on its own. “Now that the practices have been fully revealed, we should give Kenton County the opportunity to correct its path first,” he said.
Boone County legislator Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, said he is open to reconfiguring the board, but believes that Kenton County should retain the power.
“[The Kenton judge-executive] has the authority to appoint, and should be an authority to replace as well,” Schickel said.
“The airport is owned by Kenton County and Kenton County is the one who should hold them accountable.”
Kris Knochelmann, who is almost certain to be elected the next Kenton County judge executive in November, said when he takes office in January, he will go to Frankfort and lobby for change.
“I’m very confident that the legislation will be supportive,” Knochelmann said.
Ohio leaders want representation on the board and will advocate for it, but they have no vote.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said that anything that will upgrade the board and give Ohio more input he’s all for, but only if invited.
“We’ll take whatever input we can get for Ohio, but they’re are going to have to give us some, we can’t just go in and invade them and take it, but I think we have to have our business leaders talk to their business leaders because we’re all in this together,” he said. Kasich has met with Beshear on the issue and is confident that they can come to an agreement.
“Look, I think the governor of Kentucky is a reasonable guy. The governor at one point told me he thought we could have a better-balanced board. We just have to stay on it,” Kasich said.
It’s a balance that U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown voiced to Beshear in a letter earlier this year, asking that they revisit the structure of the board.
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.
Kareem Elgazzar contributed to this report.