Off ramp at the airport

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As if this winter hasn’t been dulling enough, here’s a dark suggestion for a conversation starter to try out at your next community gathering: Ask your fellow revelers if they can explain the interests and conflicts involved in the decades-old airport/county commission fracas, and then ask this follow-up question — Why should we citizens really care? It’s unlikely you’ll get answers beyond “Beats me,” but this is a costly and avoidable political fiasco of our own making.

The airport drama was probably foreordained when the federal government gifted Dukes County with the Island’s wartime Naval Air Training Station. The county’s government has floundered over the years, and has little to do and a track record of indifferent performance. More than half of the counties in Massachusetts have given up a government function altogether, and Dukes is the only county in the state to own an airport.

The Times has published more than a dozen articles centered on airport commission/county litigation in just the past 15 months, most recently last week (“State aviation official scalds Dukes County commissioners”), chronicling the struggle for political control between the county commission and its quasi-autonomous airport commission, along with occasional instances of personnel strife and expensive management salary negotiations. To be sure, nothing productive comes of the squabble.

A competent airport matters greatly to us. It’s every bit as much a lifeline as is the ferry, if with smaller numbers. Islanders needing access to specialized health care services, time-sensitive cargo, general aviation traffic, and almost 60,000 commercial passengers a year pass through the airport. Importantly, if less visibly, our business park is operated by the airport commission. Given how little commercial space is available on the Island, available supply there is every bit as important to development as is the capacity of the airport to support — or not — additional visitor traffic.

Having the airport we want and the accountability we require should be simple. Our goal is to have a safe and properly functioning air-travel facility serving the needs of Islanders and visitors. It should achieve efficient and cost-effective operations; fair dealings with employees, business park tenants, and customers; responsiveness to the needs and wants of our community of year-round and seasonal residents and business owners; informed consideration of future requirements; and conformance to federal and state regulations and requirements (airports are heavily regulated and part of larger transportation systems). And to support oversight on our behalf, we want transparency in decision-making and clear public accountability.

These seem modest enough objectives, and shouldn’t be hard to achieve. After all, the basics of airport management are well understood: There are about 14,000 airports in the U.S., and more than 200 in Massachusetts, and there is a professional trade and accreditation association with about 5,000 airport executive members. For most of us, this appears pretty straightforward, and operating a successful airport along with our only business park on its 600-plus acres would seem to require diligence and trustworthiness but not extraordinary gifts.

The governance structure we need to support our airport objectives is familiar and should work well, as long as the basic components — specialized knowledge of airport operations on one hand and necessary public accountability on the other — are in reasonable balance. We are the owners, but we understand that we need to delegate the representation of our interests to a smaller group with specialized knowledge and a bent for selfless public service. So we establish committees or boards, and set them to work for us, and we keep a watchful eye out. It’s how we achieve effective policing and fire and EMT services, and it’s how we successfully operate schools.

In the airport’s case, though, the principals charged with this task are an outdated, functionally unnecessary county government clinging to political life, an airport commission with a significant portfolio of operational and real estate responsibilities but with an accountability chasm owing to county government’s dysfunction, and a faceless bureaucratic state agency with regulatory jurisdiction but no local political accountability. Given these players, a thoughtful, functional approach to airport management and governance is not in the cards.

At the heart of the endless squabble is the highly ambiguous nature of airport control. To county government it’s a project and a revenue stream to latch onto; to state bureaucrats it’s a highly regulated small cog which must fit within a much larger air-system wheel; to the airport commission it’s a specialized oversight board accountable to the state for technical performance while meeting with the public on its own terms. In the end, the state gets what it needs, the county commissioners get nothing but legal bills and further marginalization, the airport commission gets to operate as a management fiefdom free of meaningful local oversight, and we the people get the residue, simply hoping that nothing bad happens.

Since an acceptable solution won’t come from the status quo, how do we get out of this bind? Ultimately, by taking the county commissioners out of the equation. They won’t go quietly, of course, and the state can’t easily help. And the opportunity to reconsider the fate of county government altogether isn’t on the horizon.

Our best recourse lies, as it usually does, with the political power we have at hand: continued pressure from the towns to proscribe county government activities and expenses, a concerted effort at town and community participation in airport commission meetings to keep airport business visible, and support for county commission candidates committed to ending the county’s airport fantasy. Vain, wasteful, and ineffective governance isn’t a biblical affliction, it’s a choice; we get what we deserve.