In a democracy, the majority usually rules. But not on the St. Petersburg City Council when the subject is Albert Whitted Airport. At Tuesday's meeting, five of the eight council members showed an interest in Mayor Rick Baker's compromise proposal to upgrade the airport but close one runway. Yet cowed by the three members who answer only to a handful of self-interested airport advocates, the council refused to give Baker time to prove his proposal will work.
Instead, the council scheduled a meeting for Jan. 30, when it is likely to back the so-called airport master plan that even its supporters admit is seriously flawed. That plan would put a terminal on 1st Street S, which the city's own airport consultant, The LPA Group, admits is the wrong location. Even more outrageous, the master plan calls for eight metal hangars on the waterfront across the street from Bayfront Center. That's the equivalent of erecting huge utility sheds on the Vinoy Basin. (Baker's proposal includes an attractive waterfront park in that space, returning some of the people's land to the people.)
Whom can St. Petersburg residents blame for trying to force this costly, misguided master plan on the city? Council members James Bennett, Rene Flowers and Earnest Williams. Not one of those three kept an open mind on the issue, and their reasons for rejecting the mayor's compromise should particularly concern residents.
Bennett sold out to a small group of airport users long ago. At Tuesday's meeting, they sat in the front row, where they and Bennett could exchange winks and nods. Flowers expressed contempt for the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus, which would be hurt most by the master plan, passing off the school's concerns about noise and safety with a flippant "the airport was there first" argument. And Williams aimed his anger at Baker, apparently for giving the council choices on the airport property.
The other council members correctly noted that Baker's proposal has merit, especially because it would relieve taxpayers of the burden for the airport by selling some property for development and using the profit on airport improvements. Those commissioners understandably had questions, especially about whether one runway would be sufficient and whether the FAA would support it with grants. So Baker made a reasonable request, asking the council for a delay of several months while he gets answers to those questions. Yet under pressure from Bennett, Flowers and Williams, the other members folded and denied Baker's request.
It was an unfortunate turn of events, because even if the council adopts the master plan, it won't work. By choosing metal hangars on the waterfront over a park, the council will never win public approval, especially when the public will be handed the bill for millions of dollars. And if the council thought it could avoid seeking approval from city voters, City Attorney John Wolfe set them straight. He noted that a legal point made by lawyer Thomas Reese in a St. Petersburg Times guest column raises the possibility that a referendum would be needed to accept government grants for airport projects. Reese argued that grants requiring the city to turn over public waterfront land for airport use for more than 10 years are actually leases that require referendum approval under the city charter.
Baker's proposal has solutions for all of those problems. By closing one runway and selling some of the land, he would raise enough money to relieve taxpayers' financial burden. Baker acknowledges the need for a referendum, so he would invite residents into the process, not view them with suspicion. And while Baker's proposal will undoubtedly raise objections from those who would like the airport to close completely, it is also the only idea that is likely to gain wide public support. Neither Baker nor a single council member favors closing the airport, so that option is off the table. It is not too late, however, to bring common sense back into the process of deciding Albert Whitted's future.
Baker noted after Tuesday's meeting that "people aren't saying we shouldn't do (his airport proposal). They are saying we can't do it. Well, let's find out if we can."
That's a fair request. The City Council should give Baker time to gather the facts. Only by waiting until they are fully informed can council members make a responsible decision.
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