A push is taking shape for a voter referendum on the Kalispell City Council’s decision to move forward with a project to upgrade the city airport to B-II design standards through the federal Airport Improvement Program.
Petition language is being fine-tuned among the city and county attorneys and county election department.
When that’s finalized, referendum supporters can start trying to get signatures from 1,759 registered Kalispell voters — 15 percent of the electorate — needed to put the issue on the ballot in November 2013.
The push for a referendum is being spearheaded by Chad Graham.
Graham, chairman of the city’s advisory Planning Board, said he’s not trying to “club” city council members who supported the proposed airport upgrade this July.
But he does want to see the long-running airport issue and the proposed upgrade go forward with more clarity and closure than the council’s most recent 5-4 vote.
“I can’t stress how important I think having closure on this issue is,” Graham said about the proposed project, expected to take at least eight years to complete. “The voters are the only ones who can put this issue to bed once and for all, whether they vote yes or no.”
Graham said he is pursuing the referendum independently of Scott Davis and other members of the Quiet Skies organization, though they may join the effort to get the required signatures.
The referendum would focus on voters either upholding or repealing the City Council’s decision to move forward with the B-II upgrade, the course of action recommended by Stelling Engineers in an airport planning study.
“Just a simple up or down,” Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball said of petition language taking shape.
Pointing to the Montana statute on rights of initiative and referendum, Harball said he expects people will have 60 days from July 16 to gather the signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot. That’s when the resolution was approved and went into effect.
The 5-4 decision to move forward with the upgrade was the latest of several airport votes a split Kalispell City Council has taken on the issue this summer.
It was opposed by Mayor Tammi Fisher, Phil Guiffrida III, Tim Kluesner and Bob Hafferman, who continued to push to either “leave the airport as it is” and maintain it with up to $2 million from an airport tax increment finance district that sunsets in 2020 or else put that option and the proposed B-II upgrade on the ballot for voters to choose between.
Council members Jim Atkinson, Randy Kenyon, Jeff Zauner, Wayne Saverud and Kari Gabriel voted in favor of the proposed B-II upgrade, which would bring the airport up to federal design standards. They argue that’s the best path forward for Kalispell’s public-use general aviation airport financially and in terms of noise reduction, safety improvements and economic benefit.
Guiffrida said a majority of the council has ruled on the airport issue and called the referendum attempt another “Hail Mary” to try and stop the proposed upgrade.
“They’ll either get the signatures or they won’t,” Guiffrida said of the petition. “I won’t campaign for it, I won’t gather signatures. All I can do is sign it and I’m willing to do that.”
MEANWHILE, city officials are working on a request for qualifications to select an engineering firm to do an environmental assessment for the proposed B-II upgrade.
The Federal Aviation Administration would pay for 90 percent of the study’s estimated $47,000 cost. But the city missed this year’s federal grant cycle, meaning the study likely will be on hold until at least October or November.
If the referendum drive proves successful, the study likely would be put on hold until the outcome of the November 2013 election, Harball said.
The assessment would look at possible environmental impacts and impacts on neighboring property owners. Findings then would be submitted to the FAA, which must issue a “finding of no significant impact” or ways to mitigate any significant impacts before the proposed upgrade can proceed.
Reporter Tom Lotshaw may be reached at 758-4483 or by email at email@example.com.