A campaign billboard in Paulding County.

Second airport debate gets spotlight in Paulding commission race

A debate over whether Paulding County should develop metro Atlanta’s second commercial airport is roiling an election for three key county commission seats.

If new candidates win seats on the county commission, it has the potential to shift the tide toward commercialization and possibly clear a path toward attracting airline flights.

“It seems like all roads lead back to the airport,”said Dan Boles, co-owner of a marketing firm who is running against incumbent Tony Crowe for a seat on the county commission. It comes up “in every conversation I’ve had with constituents and business owners alike throughout Paulding.”

Today, four of the commissioners on the five-seat board are anti-commercialization.

Back in 2013 when a deal with airport developer Silver Comet Terminal Partners became public, it was the opposite: Four commissioners were in favor of commercialization. But in the 2014 elections, the anti-commercialization faction won two seats and gained the majority.

With that three-member majority, the first major action they made after taking office in early 2015 was to pass a resolution withdrawing support for commercialization.

That measure — known as Resolution 15-01 for the year and numerical order of passage — has also become a focus in this year’s campaigns, as a lawsuit seeks to uncover whether Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines backed the anti-commercialization candidates and drafted the resolution for them.

Delta opposes the development of a second commercial airport in Atlanta that would compete with its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International, but has never disclosed what its opposition efforts involve and argues it has a right to anonymity. Some in Paulding have criticized what they call an intrusion by forces from outside the county.

A fourth anti-commercialization candidate won a seat on the Paulding County commission during a special election in 2016. The only person on the board who is pro-commercialization today is the chairman, Dave Carmichael.

The airport authority in a 2012 agreement with Silver Comet pledged to work toward commercial certification, and submitted an application for the certification to the Federal Aviation Administration.

With an anti-commercialization majority starting in 2015, the commission filed suit against the county’s airport authority. The county’s lawsuit questions whether the airport authority had the legal right to apply for certification, or whether the county as the owner of the airport holds that right.

But now, in the Republican-dominated county, three anti-commercialization incumbents are going up against opponents in the GOP primaries Tuesday who could shift the status quo.

“My focus is to turn [the airport] into an economic driver instead of the money pit like it is today…. I think we need to rescind Resolution 15-01,” said Boles, who criticized the use of taxpayer dollars for airport lawsuits. “We’re sick and tired of the legal battle, we’re sick and tired of the black eye that it has become for Paulding County…. The lawsuits need to go.”

‘Dirty negative campaigning’

Todd Pownall, the longest-serving anti-commercialization commissioner who faces two opponents in the Republican primaries, said “the pro-people have come out. They want commercialization of the airport.”

“They want to get at least two pro-commercial people into office so those two, along with Chairman Carmichael, can move the commercialization forward,” Pownall said. “That’s what’s at stake.”

Those who oppose commercialization believe a new commission could withdraw the county’s lawsuit, throw their support behind the airport authority’s application to the FAA for commercialization and move forward with the plan for airline flights.

“It’s an important election,” one whose outcome could determine the future of the airport, said incumbent Vernon Collett, who opposes commercialization.

Collett faces one Republican primary opponent, fire investigator Chuck Hart, and Democratic candidate Taurus Madric-Morris will be on the ballot for his seat in the fall.

The other two incumbent commissioners up for election, Pownall and Crowe, are going up against multiple opponents in the Republican primaries that could lead to a run-off.

“I feel like if we’ve made agreements and we have a contract to where we’re supposed to pursue the [commercial certification], then I think that should happen,” Hart said. “If you can’t find someone who can look at both sides, I feel like we’ll be in a stalemate.”

The heated campaigns are pitting neighbors and friends against each other in the small county of rural areas and bedroom communities with a total population of about 160,000.

“There’s a lot of nasty, dirty negative campaigning going on,” Pownall said.

“When it comes to this airport situation, it’s kind of been bad for our county,” Hart said. On this, he echoed Pownall: “It’s gotten nasty.”

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