Frustration over MidAmerica Airport ends in heated exchange at county board meeting

News-DemocratDecember 24, 2013 

File photo of MidAmerica Airport.

ZIA NIZAMI — znizami@bnd.com

One of the St. Clair County Board members pushing for more control of MidAmerica airport is not optimistic the struggle will ever bear fruit.

County Board member Frank Heiligenstein, a Democrat representing Freeburg, said Tuesday he wondered whether key decisions made by the county's Public Building Commission concerning the financially -struggling airport would ever come before the board for review.

The commission oversees the county-owned airport and recently requested the commission's attorney to review when decisions should be brought to the County Board for final approval.

"I just can't understand why some decisions are not coming forth to the full County Board. It almost appears as if a supermajority of the board members are not really interested in seeing it," Heiligenstein said.

"It's really disheartening to see the way it transpired. Too many things are just sliding through. I don't think sometimes fellow County Board members are doing their due diligence on stuff they are asked to approve."

Heiligenstein said the board should have the final say because they are representing taxpayers. Heiligenstein and other proponents of the measure have pushed for more control and transparency regarding the Mascoutah-based airport since July.

"I think (the commissioners') legal counsel needs to definitely recommend to them that ... some decisions need to be submitted for County Board approval to retain the public's confidence," Heiligenstein said. "The County Board retains the checks and balances, particularly for the facility out there. I think it's basic common sense."

Frustrations surrounding the issue brought about a heated exchange Monday night between County Board member Ed Cockrell, a Republican of New Athens, and St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern during a meeting of the County Board.

The exchange followed a question from Heiligenstein about whether a lease agreement and consulting contract OK'd by the commission would be coming before the full County Board for approval.

Kern, a Democrat, said the commission has "always brought activities from the airport before the board." He cited as an example the board's approval of an expansion at North Bay Produce, which operates a refrigerated warehouse at the airport.

"The board continues to vote for improvements on those types of issues at the airport, and as always (MidAmerica Director) Tim Cantwell comes to Economic Development Committee and reports," Kern said. "I encourage County Board members to attend those meetings and hear those reports. It is eye-opening to hear the good things that are happening there."

The committee's monthly meeting was canceled in December, Heiligenstein noted.

The heated exchange began when Cockrell said the commission should seek County Board approval for contracts and real estate agreements as outlined in a board approved resolution from 1996.

"I think ... there appears to be some conflicting language in that resolution but I still think the spirit of that resolution needs to be followed," Cockrell said. "I was at the Public Building Commission meeting and asked that certain items come to this County Board if for nothing else information purposes, but it doesn't say that. It says approval by the County Board."

Kern said Cockrell's assertions were politically motivated.

"I think the fact that agreement was done 16 years ago and we haven't heard from you on that since smacks of politics," Kern said. "I think a lot of people understand this is election time, and politics tend to come out. For 16 years it seemed to be OK and now all the sudden you have issues."

Cockrell responded he is not up for election and he is pursuing the issue because the projected deficit at the airport is $1.4 million this year. The airport regularly relies upon subsidies from the county to operate.

"Being fiscally responsible is not political," Cockrell said.

Kern said Cockrell was not being fiscally responsible when he voted against the county issuing bonds to support expansions at the Boeing Company and North Bay Produce at the airport. The bonds are being repaid by both companies through lease agreements.

"I tend to think you need to look at your voting record and determine whether you are truly committed to improve MidAmerica Airport," Kern said.

Cockrell said he voted against those proposals because the public was not informed about them.

Contact reporter Daniel Kelley at dkelley@bnd.com or 618-239-2501.

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