Last Wednesday’s meeting of the Columbia County Board of Supervisors’ airport committee played out a bit like an episode of the ’80s sitcom Benson, only with the lead character eliciting groans and retorts, instead of canned applause and laughter. As if following a TV script, the New Lebanon Supervisor of the same name did his utmost to assist the Richmor “household.” But in the end even his apparent “boss” Mahlon Richards spurned his help.
The committee’s work would seem primed for comedic misunderstandings, if only because of the confusing names of its members. Out of five appointees, there are two guys named Art, two named Mike, and three with similar last names: Bassin, Benson, Benvenuto. The studio audience may be forgiven if they have some trouble keeping the players straight.
At the end of a tumultuous 90 minutes, Mike Benson finally backed off his threat to motion for an executive session, and to end the committee’s deliberations. For a moment, it looked like peace might reign again. Unfortunately, the reasons for the construction-magnate-turned politico’s decision seemed to arise from a calculation that he did not (yet) have enough votes to steamroll the process. So there was no neat resolution of any comedic malentendu.
The meeting was standing room only, with at least 45 members of the public crammed into the first floor conference room at 401 State Street in Hudson. Attired in an off-the-rack suit and power tie (and for some reason repeatedly leaning down to tie and retie his leather shoes), Benson came spoiling for a fight. But he was immediately deflated by the absence of both County engineer David Robinson and economic development tsar Ken Flood, whom he seemed to have been counting on for backup.
Benson’s goal was to wrap up the Committee’s discussion of whether to use eminent domain (and $629,000) to seize land from Meadowgreens owner Carmen Nero, who feels his property adjoining the airport is worth more like $3 million. But one after another, the premises undergirding Benson’s argument were knocked down:
- FAA: Over and over, Benson applied pressure for a decision by asserting that the Federal Aviation Administration had “required” or “mandated” that the County acquire the land for a safety zone. Each time, either a fellow committee member, or a member of the audience, or the County attorney reminded him that the FAA’s suggestions regarding the safety zone were only just that—suggestions. He was reminded of the Committee’s letters and meetings in which the FAA acknowledged that expansion was just one of several options.
At one point, almost the entire room burst out correcting Benson’s fifth or sixth attempt to portray his preferred option as a requirement.
- INSURANCE: Stymied on the FAA front, Benson tried a fear tactic instead. Raising the horrendous possibility of an accident at the airport—maybe that very night!—he argued that if the land were not taken from Nero right away, the County’s insurance would not cover it. Calling upon County attorney Rob Fitzsimmons to back him up, Benson did not get the answer he expected: Fitzsimmons indicated that their policy is adequate.
- CONTRACT: Already seeming exasperated, Benson turned to yet another line of argument. The County, he said, had a contractual obligation to Richmor Aviation to take the eminent domain action. Feeling on solid ground, he read out a portion of the contract which he thought would justify this position, though the actual text was ambiguous. Unfortunately for the hapless Benson, he was again on quicksand: a member of the audience had read the entire contract, and read out the very next paragraph—which clearly stated that the County had the right to do as it saw fit, and modify the contract when necessary. That fuller reading was again supported by Fitzsimmons.
Hudson alderman and attorney John Friedman also pointed out that the contract itself might be void to begin with, as it does not appear that the County has ever bid out the lease of the airport. Terms, the discussion revealed, were offered exclusively to Richmor over the past 40 years. As Friedman sought to ask a question of company president Mahlon Richards, Benson kept interrupting and trying to answer for him, prompting Friedman to note “how much your voice sounds like Mr. Richards’.”
This attendee then asked Richards (who sat stoically throughout the meeting, answering briefly in tones much softer than Benson’s) whether Richmor had any problem with the contract or the County’s delivery of services. Again Benson interjected several times as if to speak on Richards’ behalf. But when the Richmor chief finally got a chance to speak, he said that he had no problem with the contract, no intention of suing the County, and was satisfied with the relationship. Benson seemed chagrined, yet still undaunted in making an adversarial case against his own side’s defense (that of the County) in favor of a position for a theoretical plaintiff (Richmor) who evinced no interest in pursuing his theoretical dispute.
- TIMING: Throughout, Benson also tried to suggest that time was of the essence, believing that the County could not risk of deliberating a moment longer. But committee chair Art Bassin noted that even if they voted to move ahead on Benson’s motion right away, the eminent domain and construction process for expanding the zone would take a very long time, maybe 3 years.
The only “quick” option, Bassin reminded him, was the one Benson likes least— that of immediately shortening the runway from 5,350 to 4,500 feet, obviating the need for seizing more land on the north end.
It was also pointed out from the audience that the County had been aware of the FAA’s gentle suggestion since 2001, yet had not taken any action to prevent what Benson portrayed as a virtual emergency. The lack of urgency over the past 12 years, coupled with the assurances on insurance and timing, severely undercut this fourth Benson line of attack.
- PROPERTY RIGHTS: Benson furthermore attempted to position himself as a champion of property rights and the freedom of business to do whatever it wants. The effort seemed limited to one business, which happens to be a renter not a property owner.
“No one here is a bigger defender of property rights than me,” Benson thundered, all but thumping his chest. However, Michael Schrom of Ghent pointed out that there were at least a dozen neighboring residents and business people (including himself) in addition to Carmen Nero whose property would have to be seized to enact Benson’s preferred plan. Where, then, was his concern for those people’s and businesses’ rights? Benson could offer no coherent explanation.
It was also pointed out (by this attendee) that the dozen other impacted neighbors’ parcels had been specified in a County-commissioned report for tree removal and clearing. Nevertheless, none of those neighbrs apppear to have ever been contacted by the County to alert them about government’s plans for their private land.
Benson soldiered on, again coming to the unsolicited defense of Richmor and its business interests as paramount. But again, a voice emanated from the audience to chop the legs out from under this phalanx. A local mechanic and pilot who formely worked for Richmor related his experience trying to do business at the airport, describing how he was squeezed out and prevented from setting up his own operation there. If this were all about promoting activity at the airport, why had healthy competition or complementary business been so consistently discouraged in favor of one company?
- OPTIONS: Greenport Supervisor John Porreca tried to turn the debate in a constructive direction by presenting a new alternative: shortening the runway slightly on the North end, while lengthening it to the South.
The Porreca solution would result in only a slightly shorter runway (5,000 feet), and would not require the eminent domain against Nero the north, as the County already owns land to the South. The rest of the Committee seemed eager to analyze this alongside the other two options; but Benson seemed fit to be tied, viewing this less as a positive new idea and more as a threat to his promised motion. Yet again, Richards undercut his would-be advocate in saying that he thought the idea was promising and something Richmor could probably live with.
In this context, there was also extensive back-and-forth about the number and type of planes taking off an landing at the airport. As the committee and the public started to drill down on Richmor’s claims, it became more apparent that the number of jets which would be adversely affected by a shortened runway were surpassingly small. Indeed, the main concern according to Richards was his company’s preference for taking off fully loaded, so that it could buy more fuel from itself and less from other vendors. No dollar figure was put on this added cost. But it hardly seemed to justify a public expenditure of as much as $13 million for upgrades which would follow the six-figure eminent domain process.
As the meeting drew to a close, Ghent supervisor-elect Mike Benvenuto sought to calm the churned-up waters, sensing a growing consensus that the Committee now had a wider range of options and a better idea of what research was needed to complete. Bassin felt that analysis could be completed in a matter of months, not years, and would if anything result in a speedier resolution than jumping straight to eminent domain.
This brief moment of harmony, so much like warm-n-fuzzy final minute of a Benson episode, was spoiled by New Lebanon’s Supervisor. Asked if he wished to make his motion after all that, Benson hemmed and hawed. Then, causing audible exasperation among the audience, he proceeded to reiterate all the arguments that had just been thoroughly discredited.
As if having not heard any of the previous discussion, Benson returned to all of his original talking points: The FAA is requiring it; the County has an insurance risk; the County is in breach of contract; the Committee has no more time to spare; Richmor’s property rights and business interests must come first. This prompted howls of protest that all of these had already been raised and debunked.
Without acknowledging that he had heard any of the prior debate, Benson did seem to have wised up to one thing: that he did not have the votes to carry his motion that day. Of the five present, only commitee member David Crawford (an engineer, who spent much of the meeting whispering to Benson while others spoke), seemed at all likely to agree to end the discussion and move it to the full Board. So Benson instead retreated to a plea that the Committee needs to come to a decision “soon,” to which Bassin again replied that he did not think more than a couple of more months would be necessary to arrive at a sound recommendation.
The incipient harmony was then smashed again with further discord from Benson, who unexpectedly tore into an unnamed citizen for making what he believed were intemperate or even slanderous remarks in an email. Resident Patti Matheney countered that as a public official, Benson had standards of decency to adhere to himself, and wondered aloud if he were prepared for his own emails to be read out at a future meeting. This attendee inquired whether the County had a policy governing the private use of government-issued email accounts, which Fitzsimmons indicated it did.
The next meeting is scheduled for Friday, December 27th (time and venue TBD) at which Michael Schrom is expected to make a presentation based on the results of the Freedom of Information Law request he made with another resident, Kevin Delahanty.