May 14, 2013 Updated: May 14, 2013 at 12:57 pm
Mayor Steve Bach has effectively grounded the Colorado Springs Airport Advisory Commission, saying it was formed under the old way of government and has outlived its usefulness.
In a May 1 letter, he told the airport commission that airport staff would no longer attend its monthly meetings. Staff typically prepared enplanement, financial and planning reports for the commission, he said.
Instead, airport staff time would be better spent on air service development, Bach said. He has directed airport managers to head an aggressive campaign to attract air service and businesses to the airport and airport business park.
"Under our new form of city government, wherein the airport director reports to the mayor, I have asked the staff to focus their time and resources on the critical issues facing the airport," Bach wrote in his letter and restated Monday in an interview.
The move comes at a time when the new Colorado Springs City Council wants to seize back power it felt the former council let go under the strong-mayor government. Council member Joel Miller said he was concerned that the City Council was not consulted about the mayor's intention to keep airport staff from working with the commission, which reports to council.
"I really have a problem with how that was done," Miller said Monday during the council work session meeting. "I'm not sure of the way forward. This undermines our ability to monitor city agencies, as directed in code."
Bach said he did not intend a power grab. He called his actions a business move. Every year for the past decade fewer people have boarded airplanes from the Colorado Springs Airport. Bach was alarmed this year when those passenger projections hit a 20-year low - projected at 690,204 passengers for 2013. His office is in the midst of hiring an airport marketing consultant.
Meanwhile, Bach said, he never saw recommendations from the airport commission on how to remedy the falling numbers and questions the need for the commission.
"What has the commission done to turn it around?" Bach asked. "As far as I can tell, nothing."
Making staff duty changes is within the mayor's purview, said City Attorney Chris Melcher. Under the new form of government, the mayor is the CEO of the city and oversees all city staff, including the airport staff.
But the airport commission is created by, appointed by and answers to City Council. Miller saw the move by the mayor as zapping power from the commission and the council. It ignores the spirit of the city code, which gives the council authority to create the airport commission, said Miller, who previously served on it.
"Frankly, regarding this matter, I'm much less concerned about the mayor doing what is legal - though I believe the legality of this action is questionable - than I am about him doing what is right," Miller wrote in a letter to his District 2 constituents.
The Colorado Springs Airport has grabbed headlines since February when Frontier Airlines stopped all service in and out of Colorado Springs - which represented about 20 percent of the market. Then in March, airport aviation director Mark Earle resigned amid a disagreement with Bach over how the airport should try to attract more passengers and airline service.
The changes now with the airport commission may have started with a letter of appreciation the airport commission wanted to send to Earle, said Pat Boone, airport commission chairwoman.
The commission wanted to thank Earle for his 10 years of work, which included overseeing millions of dollars in capital improvement and preserving a $45 million reserve fund, Boone said.
She was told not to send the letter because it reflected conflict between the mayor and the Airport Advisory Commission, she said.
In an email Melcher sent to airport commissioners he said that Earle resigned his position and is pursuing other career opportunities. It is standard practice in employment situations to provide limited information to third parties on behalf of former employees, and typically information should not include letters of reference or testimonials or even letters of acknowledgments.
Boone fired back that there is a difference between a letter of recommendation and the letter of appreciation the commission wanted to send.
Then came the letter from the mayor saying the airport staff would no longer support the commission, Boone said.
"My first reaction when I read it was, 'if you don't do what I tell you then I will have my own commission,'" Boone said about the mayor's letter. "If this is allowed to take place, the mayor could take away all boards and commissions by not allowing them to have information."
The airport advisory commission does not make decisions. It is the place where the citizens interface with the airport, Boone said. The commission does provide advice on areas of land use, for example, on proposals to build near the airport.
"We question anything that does not look right or report things we hear from the community," Boone said.
Miller said the airport commission has not outgrown its usefulness. He argues that the commission is more valuable now that the council has limited interaction with the city staff.
"What is right in this case is for members of the airport staff to attend commission meetings and keep our representatives abreast of the successes and challenges of our airport," Miller wrote in his letter to District 2.
Reporter Wayne Heilman contributed to this report.