U.S. Representative Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), a strong supporter of aerospace development in North Central West Virginia, says the airport has changed greatly since the authority's inception in the 1960s.
"It's evolved from a sleepy airport into a very dynamic one with a growing stakeholder base on the airport grounds," Mollohan said.
House Bill 3252, sponsored by Delegates Barbara Warner, D-Harrison, Sam Cann, D-Harrison, Doug Stalnaker, R-Lewis, and Harold Michael, D-Hardy, would give those stakeholders more say on the authority's board. But it would remove the power of appointing all board members from Harrison and Marion county commissioners. Those counties own and operate the airport.
The bill would change the board from a 12-member, county-appointed entity to one composed of 11 members. Those members would be four appointed by the counties, two appointed by the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex board of directors from industry businesses plus its executive director, a representative from the Council for Community and Economic Development, the state Transportation Secretary, the Bridgeport city manager and the president of Fairmont State College.
"You want people who understand the industry on the board," Mollohan said. "You have a diverse board with expertise around the table that can talk about aerospace development."
'It's a power grab'
Current authority members and other county and airport leaders from around the state question the need for change. They also question the manner in which the legislation moved to the governor's desk.
"I'm most disturbed with the method," said authority President Roger Diaz. "There was no communication with the current board. No one asked what we thought."
Jim Smith is another authority member and, like Diaz, a Harrison County commissioner. Smith said he took issue because the measure strips governing power from local citizens.
"If they had a problem with some of the members of the board, they should have addressed it through the board. They haven't done anything but try to gain control," Smith said.
That opinion is shared by Kent Carper, president of the Kanawha County Commission and spokesman for Yeager Airport.
"It's a power grab," Carper said.
Carper and his fellow commissioners sent a strongly worded letter to Gov. Bob Wise, urging his veto. The bill is unconstitutional, they wrote, and bad public policy.
"It's backdoor politics," Carper said. "Why does the state want to be involved with airports? They don't want all of them. They don't want the ones that are broke. Only the successful ones."
What the future might hold
Both Carper and Larry Salyers, manager of the Tri-State Airport near Huntington, said they fear similar measures may be directed at their airports in the future.
"This doesn't surprise me, only in that it's the Clarksburg airport," Salyers said. "I've told our board for the past two years that we would be a target for this."
The day the bill passed "was a bad day for aviation in West Virginia," Salyers said. "I don't see any good coming from it."
Carper said the current Benedum Airport Authority has several options and the support of many others.
"We will fight this tooth and nail. ... They need to decide what avenues to pursue," Carper said.
Diaz said he was unsure what direction the authority or county commission would choose.
"I hate court battles, but I would recommend to the airport authority to pursue all options," Diaz said.
Managing Editor John Miller can be reached at (304) 626-1473 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photo Editor Bob Shaw and Bridgeport News Editor Jeff Toquinto contributed to this report.