Idaho is still such a small state that it not only tolerates conflicts of interests on the part of its public officials, but it frequently encourages it.
Of course, there are egregious cases. It wouldn’t make much sense to put a direct competitor of the local library, such as a bookstore owner, on the library board. You don’t want a tax protester serving on the state Tax Commission — or, for that matter, on the legislative committee that writes tax laws for the rest of us. An advocate of private education probably has better things to do than set policy on the local public school board.
It’s a matter of balance. There’s no need to discourage a public school teacher from serving on the State Board of Education or even in the Legislature — where her expertise and commitment far outweigh any private interest in policy or budget-making.
And in the case of Idaho’s small and medium-sized airports, there’s a lot to be said for recruiting onto the governing boards people who actually have a stake in aviation. It could be airline employees, general aviation pilots or even those who use hangars on the grounds. Who is better equipped to understand the economic terrain, the local markets and even the Federal Aviation Administration regulations?
In the case of the Lewiston-Nez Perce Regional Airport Authority, however, that kind of expertise has come with a price.
The current chairman of the airport authority board, Gary Peters, has ties to hangar operations at the airport. Twice now, activity at those hangars has drawn the scrutiny of the FAA:
l In late 2018, the agency conducted an investigation into reports that a “rogue tenant” had changed the striping on a taxiway. At the time, Peters told the Lewiston Tribune’s Elaine Williams that while he didn’t believe himself to be a “rogue tenant,” he was the person who called Stripes-A-Lot in Clarkston to redo the markings.
l Last month, former airport manager Robin Turner got the FAA’s attention by alleging that Peters used airport hangars for political fundraisers, public hearings and a public memorial service.
Aside from whether public resources were inappropriately devoted to a private function, the FAA is looking into the potentially serious allegation that airport security was breached. It wants to know if the political function allowed people to enter the airport’s controlled area through a personal hangar, whether the airport lost “all accountability of those attending private events” because staff opened a gate and disabled the controller, and whether vehicles were cleared onto the airport’s secure areas without “any authorization checks or inspection.”
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you’re an aspiring FAA investigator who sees that set of charges. If the facts check out, here’s a chance to send a message to airports across the region by using Lewiston as an example.
Or simply put yourself in the shoes of a commercial airline executive upon reading those allegations. Wouldn’t he wonder if his company’s equipment and passengers had been placed at any risk?
Not only does that raise questions about the divided loyalties of Peters — does he care more about his own affairs than the airport’s — but where does it leave Airport Director Michael Isaacs and his staff? How independent can they be when the chairman of the governing board may be implicated in a FAA inquiry?
If the airport hasn’t reached its pain threshold for conflicts, it has to be getting close. Will resolving one individual’s conflict of interest be enough to resolve the problem — or has the time come for the airport authority to impose a blanket policy keeping all airport contractors — along with their expertise — at arm’s length? — M.T.