by Nora Edinger
BRIDGEPORT -- The outgoing Benedum Airport Authority threw down the gauntlet to the state Tuesday, changing its bylaws to give county commissioners control.
Members also voted unanimously to consider a legal challenge to a newly passed state law that will restructure the authority's membership as of July 1.
Proponents of the law do not believe the bylaw changes will stand and say the state law is constitutionally sound.
"Everyone that we talked to said this wasn't a power play and they just wanted representation on the board," said Roger Diaz, authority president and a Harrison County commissioner.
"If that's the truth, there shouldn't be any consternation about what we did today."
Diaz was referring to the fact the new state law removes most appointment-making power from the Harrison and Marion county commissions. He has been an outspoken critic of the change, which he has labeled a state grab for control.
"Our action today was a response to the lack of a compromise (between the state and county views)," Diaz said.
"Also, we wanted to keep some semblance of county control. Two commissioners have to vote 'yes' for something to pass."
The bylaw change was multi-faceted.
First, members voted 7-0 to change passage requirements from a simple majority to a super majority. That means 80 percent of all members -- whether present or voting by proxy -- must approve any measure.
Because the Harrison and Marion county commissions will have two appointments each under the new law, at least two county appointees will have to approve any vote to achieve the 80 percent. Those appointees are expected to be commissioners, Diaz said.
Also, the members voted to redo officer requirements so that the president, vice-president and four of five executive committee members would be made up entirely of the county commission appointees.
The bylaw changes are effective June 1, one month before the membership change.
The new authority will have 11 members. In addition to the commission appointees, there will be two made by the Mid-Atlantic Aerospace Complex plus its executive director. That federally funded agency markets the airport.
Other automatic appointments will include a representative from the state Council for Community and Economic Development, the state transportation secretary, the Bridgeport city manager and the president of Fairmont State College.
The constitutional challenge
In a separate-but-related move, the authority approved possible legal action against the state. Diaz believes the new law may be unconstitutional because it singles out one airport and for other, unnamed reasons.
Harrison County Commissioner Jim Smith, Marion County Commissioner Jim Sago and Harrison attorney/pilot Jim Gray were appointed to look into hiring an attorney.
"We want to look at bringing a quick test case by July 1," Sago said.
Should the authority file a lawsuit and succeed, Diaz said he would pursue adding a Bridgeport official and representatives from Mid-Atlantic to the authority anyway.
Del. Barbara Ann Warner, D-Harrison, does not believe the bylaw changes will stand beyond June 30. She was one of four sponsors of the bill and is chair of the House Transportation Committee.
"The new authority will form their own bylaws," Warner said. "They have the right to write their own bylaws. It's a new board."
Bill Case, spokesman for Gov. Bob Wise, said state attorneys are convinced the new law can withstand a challenge.
Kim Haws, Bridgeport city manager and a member of the incoming board, said he was surprised by the authority's move.
"I am concerned that any major decisions are being made knowing full well a new board is going to be in place in two months," Haws said.
Bridgeport officials, which have contributed financially to the airport and have zoning concerns, pursued a voting presence on the board prior to the new law.
Bridgeport Mayor Joe Timms was also concerned about the changes.
"I just hope we haven't politicized the process," Timms said. "What we're trying to do is develop this airport."
Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.