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Airport flap back before Legislature

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

CHARLESTON -- A second round of legislation involving the membership structure of the Benedum Airport Authority may come up in Senate committee as early as next week.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, has a bill in the drafting stage that would formalize the current member-appointing procedure by a legislative act. Harrison and Marion counties, which own the Harrison-Marion Regional Airport, now appoint all authority members through their county commissions.

"Let's bring out all the players and see what they have to say," said Prezioso, indicating his displeasure with previous legislation on the subject.

"Let's find out what the real issues are."

Proponents of changing the board structure say they may introduce new bills at some point, as well.

The structure of the board has been in bitter contention since April.

At the end of the 2001 regular session, a bill passed that reduced Harrison and Marion county commissions' appointment-making authority and diversified the board to include several state officials and aviation business interests.

The sitting airport authority sued the state over the new law and won. Late in the summer, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Herman Canaday, Jr. declared the new law unconstitutional special legislation. He reinstated the board to its original structure.

The state, represented by the Attorney General's Office, filed an intent to appeal Canaday's decision to the state Supreme Court later in the year. Although the appeal deadline is Feb. 10, Silas Taylor, senior deputy attorney general, said he has received no direction to file the appeal.

"I did receive instructions to keep our options open, but nothing since then," Taylor said Tuesday.

Prezioso said he is introducing the legislation to bring the discussion out into the open.

"I think it was brought over and we were sold a bill of goods and they slid it through," he said of the speed with which the 2001 bill passed.

Del. Barbara Ann Warner, D-Harrison, said Prezioso's bill may not be the only second look at the airport's governance, however.

"It's just as possible that we're going to redo the bill," she said Tuesday. "There's some real problems up there still."

Warner, who is chair of the House Transportation Committee, was a key sponsor of the 2001 bill and continues to support certain provisions in it. She still wants more aviation industry experts on the board and a better working relationship between the authority and the state.

She is particularly concerned the long-term development of a regional airport between Charleston and Huntington could someday steal business from Harrison-Marion.

"If we don't take advantage of what we have up there, we could lose it," Warner said. "We need to continue the growth instead of fighting internally all the time."

David Marcum, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, said that agency will stay out of the legislative process unless asked to get involved. The department had been given membership on the authority under the 2001 bill.

Staff writer Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com

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