A closed session discussion the day before Thanksgiving, a confidentiality pact and a code name: Silver Comet.
That’s how Paulding County officials managed for about a year to keep the lid on an historic plan to bring airline service to a second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.
Last Nov. 21, airport authority board members came out of an executive session closed to the public and quickly voted to approve an airport terminal lease with an entity called Silver Comet, according to minutes and a video of the meeting taken by a local business person who attended.
None of the authority members mentioned that Silver Comet was created by the CEO of Propeller Investments, a company that tried to bring airline service to Gwinnett County’s Briscoe Field but was blocked by public opposition. Or that they had agreed to keep Propeller’s involvement quiet.
“When you say Silver Comet out here, we think the trail, not the airport,” said Paulding resident Susan Wilkins. Since the Propeller lease was publicly announced last week she’s created a Facebook page called “Stop Paulding County Airport Expansion” and launched an online petition.
She thinks the Silver Comet name was a way to keep the public in the dark about Propeller’s involvement.
“People had no idea,” she said.
It’s yet unclear whether opposition will gel into a legal challenge or other efforts to torpedo the project in Paulding, where county officials and some residents think a busier airport with limited airline service will help lure aviation-related businesses and needed jobs.
Authority members say they were just trying to keep a business recruitment effort confidential. Opponents say it was a deliberate effort to mask the latest attempt to bring airline service to one of the region’s secondary airports, a controversial idea wherever proposed.
The lease and airport use agreement approved at the November meeting states that Silver Comet would use the airport terminal “as office space for the marketing and establishment of general aviation and commercial passenger service,” along with ancillary activities.
Airport chief Blake Swafford said if anyone had asked him after the meeting what Silver Comet was he would have told them, and that any citizen could request the lease agreement through open records requests.
Silver Comet and Paulding officials verbally agreed to confidentiality until they were close to signing an airline or a new employer.
It wasn’t until this month that Propeller CEO Brett Smith and Swafford detailed the plan, with hopes of announcing airline service by the end of the year.
With the lease already approved, they say no public referenda or hearings are needed to do it. The main obstacles are Federal Aviation Administration approval of commercial service at the airport and finding an airline willing to fly there. Smith has said he’s in talks but hasn’t identified any carriers.
The secrecy surrounding the project seems to have angered some residents as much as a few weekly flights by mid-sized airliners — the level of service Swafford said he envisions initially.
On Tuesday, residents upset with the idea were among several dozen people at the airport authority’s first meeting since news reports of the project. After presentations on projects for the terminal, runway and taxiway to enable airline service, some members of the public sought to comment or ask questions.
Authority chairman Calvin Thompson said they hadn’t submitted the necessary advance request to speak before the authority.
“The only way you can get in here and talk” is to submit a request, Thompson said, adding, “as long as it’s not finger pointing or back-biting.”
Some of those in attendance, like J.W. Louie, shouted their displeasure from the back of the room.
“I live within five miles of the airport,” Louie said. “There’s no transparency.”
Marilyn Austin, who has property about a mile and a half from the airport, called the process “underhanded and deceptive,” adding, “It’s been kept secret from the citizens and I feel very bitter about it.”
“They should have taken the time to take the questions from people,” said county commissioner Todd Pownall, who represents the district including the airport but was not told about the plan for airline service until this month.
Swafford, who recruited Propeller for the project, said he was available after Tuesday’s meeting to answer any questions.
“There are 142,000 people in this county. There are 10 that are unhappy,” Swafford said.
Minutes of the November 2012 meeting do not give a specific reason for entering into a closed session discussion, though Georgia open meetings law requires specific justification. The law allows for executive sessions for lease discussions.
Authority board member David Austin (no relation to Marilyn Austin), who is also county commission chairman, said the authority went into closed session on the Silver Comet lease “just to find out their client base, their connections in the aviation industry.”
Thompson said the executive session was to discuss “legal matters.”
A month before the November meeting, the authority had called a special meeting to discuss and approve an option lease with Silver Comet for up to 60 acres of land near the airport, which officials hope can be used to attract employers and create jobs. No guests attended the called meeting, according to the minutes.
“Silver Comet asked us to be discreet,” Swafford said. “I feel we took care of the business in a manner that the law and the state requires.”