Paulding County residents silenced at airport authority meetings

Staff writer Leon Stafford contributed to this article.

Paulding residents have plenty of opinions about plans to bring commercial airline flights to their county. But none of their comments about one of the county’s most important issues in years have been allowed at airport authority meetings since the plans were announced four months ago.

Instead, residents seeking to express their concerns about how commercial flights would affect property values, costs, traffic and the environment have been silenced at the monthly public meetings of the Paulding County Airport Authority.

Here’s one exchange from last month’s meeting:

Resident Kenneth Coggins to authority board members: “We would like the opportunity to address you. Is that asking too much?”

Airport authority chairman Calvin Thompson: “Well, we all work,” referring to the fact that board members are volunteers with limited time to devote to authority meetings outside of their regular jobs.

Thompson: “[Authority attorney Tom Cable] has already told you exactly how you get on the agenda. If you’ll be here next month and get on the agenda, then we’ll let you talk.”

Coggins: “You won’t stay after the meeting and let us address you?”

Thompson: “No sir.”

Residents have been told that they must follow procedures to submit a request in advance of the meeting. When they asked for a copy of the written policy for public comments, they were told there isn’t one. Then, at last month’s meeting, the airport authority pledged to draft a policy by its Feb. 19 meeting — four months after the hot-button issue surfaced.

There’s no law that requires public bodies to allow public comments at their meetings. There’s also no law prohibiting it. That leaves a gray area that allows some boards to sidestep any obligation to hear public input – or criticism of their actions.

The conflict over public comments arose amid concerns among some residents about how the airport commercialization plan was hatched. They felt betrayed by airport leaders who quietly spent 11 months planning to attract airline flights to Paulding County without telling the public.

It’s common for city councils and county commissions to take comments from the public during their meetings – in many cases it’s as easy as walking into the meeting and signing in to speak.

And some local government authorities – such as the Atlanta Housing Authority, MARTA and Invest Atlanta – also allow public comments during their meetings.

But other local government authorities are less visible to the public. Their meetings are thinly attended by citizens and the board rarely if ever gets requests from citizens wishing to speak.

The issue of public commenting at meetings is a hot topic, said Georgia First Amendment Foundation executive director Hollie Manheimer.

“In my opinion there should always be a public comment period because this is a public meeting about issues of public concern conducted by a public agency,” Manheimer said. “Regardless of who is conducting the public meeting, it’s for the public benefit. It’s not for the benefit of those running the meeting.”

Boards that don’t attract the public to their meetings generally don’t have policies allowing citizens to speak out, according to William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia. That can create tense moments when the agency is suddenly thrust into the limelight and the public is anxious to be heard.

Perry experienced this last year when he sought to comment at a Georgia World Congress Center Authority meeting on plans for a new $1.2 billion Atlanta Falcons stadium, but was rebuffed.

At Common Cause Georgia, “Our position has always been that if it is even a quasi-government agency, public commenting should be allowed,” Perry said.

Paulding’s airport authority was little-watched, until it dove into the public eye last October when it announced plans to become the second commercial airport in metro Atlanta.

At the first meeting after the announcement, authority chairman Thompson told residents: “The only way you can get in here and talk” is to submit a request, “as long as it’s not finger-pointing or back-biting.”

Before the January meeting, residents submitted a request with less than 24 hours notice. Airport director Blake Swafford said the requests to make comments came in the evening before the meeting.

“We do need seven days’ notice,” in order for commenters to be included in the agenda, Swafford said at the meeting.

Resident Kerstin Liberty said it wouldn’t matter how much advance notice they gave, because the airport authority could still block public comments.

“They make it up as they go,” Liberty said. “Clearly they don’t want to hear from the public.”

Swafford, the airport director, later said the seven-day period is intended to allow the airport chairman time “to make a decision as to whether or not to put it on the agenda.”

“If somebody’s going to come in and for example, start talking about fuel getting into groundwater … that’s something that’s prevented by spill preventing plans,” Swafford said. “We don’t want to waste the authority’s time with things that aren’t realistic and things that aren’t pertinent.”

And, Swafford said, “our board members … they’re volunteers. We only have them for an hour a month.”

David Austin, Paulding County’s commission chairman who also serves on the airport authority, said he has told the public that they’re welcome to meet with him one-on-one.

“I’m not going to meet in a gang mentality,” Austin said.

But residents say they want their comments heard in a more meaningful public forum.

“They know citizens want to be involved,” said resident Anthony Avery. “And they’re just slapping us in the face and saying, ‘Go away, we don’t want you.’”