Airport vote grounded

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It was a bit early for July 4, but fireworks flew Monday as the Kalispell City Council killed an airport referendum nearly set for November’s general election.

That puts the question of future investment at the 83-year-old general aviation airport out of the hands of voters and back before the council. It also possibly aggravates a long-running fight between opponents and proponents of airport expansion.

Council member Wayne Saverud, the swing vote to approve the airport referendum 5-4 back on May 21, was again the swing vote to repeal it 5-4.

Saverud called the referendum a “premature” outcome and pointed to his initial request back in May to table the airport question for more research and deliberation.

That request to table the issue failed without a second among council members who had decided to press ahead to reach an airport decision that night without holding a workshop to try and share or work through their views beforehand.

Saverud said he and others later were surprised by the estimated $10,000 cost for the referendum and state laws that limit ballot language to a 100-word preface and two, 25-word options.

“This issue is much too complex to distill into so few words ... If we employed the typical process and studied this in a workshop we might have avoided this predicament, but we didn’t,” Saverud said.

“A number of residents have said they will be pleased to vote. As many or more have told me it will be difficult or impossible [for voters] to make a decision ... After much deliberation, my support of the motion to send this to the ballot was premature and I will support a motion to rescind.”

The vote to kill the referendum also was supported by council members Jim Atkinson, Randy Kenyon, Jeff Zauner and Kari Gabriel.

“I was elected by my constituents to represent them,” Zauner said. “I was not elected to pass the vote back to them every time I was challenged by a tough decision.”

The repeal was opposed by Mayor Tammi Fisher and council members Tim Kluesner, Phil Guiffrida III and Bob Hafferman, all of whom had supported the referendum back in May and continued to support it Monday.

The referendum would have had voters choose between two options: Upgrading and expanding the airport to B-II design standards with a mix of local funds and mostly federal Airport Improvement Program funds and “leaving the airport as-is” supported only by local funds.

“I will not take away any citizen’s right to vote on this issue. This is their property and they have a right to be heard,” Guiffrida said, calling some council members’ comments against the referendum during a work session one week ago “nothing short of rude and demeaning to our citizens.”

Kenyon said his concern about the referendum is not that voters are uninformed or incapable of deciding the issue, but that it would spur a campaign battle fueled mostly by misinformation and rhetoric and not real issues.

“This is an incredibly complex issue and I agree that putting this issue in 50 words is unreasonable,” Kenyon said.

Kenyon added that the referendum was a “desperate, last-minute gamble” by Fisher and the others and pursued only after their preferred option of maintaining the airport in its present configuration with tax increment finance district funds failed 5-4, with Saverud voting against that option and also the swing vote in that decision.

“In all the weeks and years we’ve talked about this, we’ve never had even one discussion about putting this on the ballot until that last possible moment,” Kenyon said. “I think that was unreasonable and unfair to the public and to this council.”

Others predicted Monday’s outcome will only escalate a long-running fight. Hafferman called the repeal a move by council members “fearful of a vote of the people” and predicted citizens now will initiate their own referendum if the council decides to move forward with the B-II expansion, a project estimated to take at least six years to complete.

“That will certainly be interesting,” Hafferman said.

For now, the outcome puts the same old question of what to do with Kalispell City Airport back before the council, likely in mid-July. A proposed resolution would have council members choose between the B-II upgrade and expansion, as recommended in the latest airport master plan update by Stelling Engineers, or an upgrade and smaller expansion to B-I design standards with local funds.

Kalispell’s airport is used mostly by the smallest and slowest A-1 aircraft, a few B-I aircraft that have faster approach speeds and occasional B-II aircraft that have the same approach speeds as B-I aircraft but larger wingspans. The present airport configuration does meet federal design standards for even A-I and B-I aircraft, according to Jeff Walla of Stelling Engineers.

Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at tlotshaw@dailyinterlake.com.

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