Committee, RIAC Meet Behind Closed Doors in Effort to Reach Airport Agreement

Warwick Beacon Online
January 24, 3012 By John Howell and Jessica Botelho

A City Council sub-committee charged with overseeing litigation asking the federal court for a review of the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision favoring a longer runway at Green Airport met with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation for the first time Friday morning.

While the parties met in executive session and neither side would talk about specifics discussed, there is no question that some want to see the runway extension and extension of the safety areas to the shorter of the airport’s two runways proceed as quickly as possible. Also, Richard Langseth, who has closely followed airport developments, has asked the Attorney General to rule on whether the City Council followed Opening Meeting laws when the committee went into executive session.

Prior to going into executive session, the committee entertained public comments for about 15 minutes.

“This is a very important potential project for us,” said Scott Duhamel.

Duhamel, the Business Representative of the Builders Union and Secretary-Treasurer of the Rhode Island Building and Construction Trades Council, which represents 10,000 workers in the state, said, “Our members have had two bad years in a row; they’ve been out of work; they’ve lost houses, cars and marriages. We’re very worried that we may have missed the window of opportunity in 2012, as our members sit home today on the bench.”

He urged the council to work out issues so RIAC can move forward with the project.

“It’s essential to put people back to work,” he said.

Other union representatives made similar arguments, urging a rapid and reasonable agreement between the sides so that the legal action could be dropped and work started as early as this year.

But whether any headway was made behind closed doors after nearly three hours of talks is unknown. Kevin Dillon, RIAC CEO, said Friday the parties were sworn to secrecy. No statement was issued following the meeting. Another meeting is planned for this Thursday. The committee will meet at 5 p.m. at City Hall and then at 6 with RIAC. Committee chairwoman Camille Vella-Wilkinson said the public would have the opportunity to comment before each meeting starts.

The issue of what exactly was being talked about in executive session prompted Langseth to comment at the meeting and to follow up with his letter to the Attorney General on Monday.

“If you have discussion about items on the agenda in a closed meeting, that’s OK, but if there’s no item on the agenda in a closed meeting, then the party going into the closed meeting has no business being there. You have to be very careful because we are setting precedence here. This is not a trivial issue [and] we all have to understand where we are going with this,” he told the committee Friday.

On Sunday, Langseth said that during the meeting, the City Council Litigation Committee failed to specify the subdivision of Rhode Island General Laws (RIGL) Section 42-46-5(a) that applies and did not provide a statement specifying the nature of the business to be discussed.

“I ask the Attorney General to order the Warwick City Council to disclose both the specific subdivision that applies to this executive session and the nature of the business that was discussed with the Rhode Island Airport Corporation,” he said in a statement.

He said this is important because it sets a time frame for the eventual unsealing of the meeting minutes.

“If the public does not know the nature of the discussion then it becomes impossible to know when to request an unsealing of the minutes,” he argues.

Two of the three-member committee, Vella-Wilkinson and Bruce Place were in attendance along with non-voting members, City Planner William DePasquale and Council Solicitor John Harrington. Absent for most of the meeting was Ward 9 Councilman Steve Merolla.

The council voted to seek a review of the FAA record of decision on grounds that it was acting on behalf of the health and safety of Warwick residents. Among those issues council members said they would like to see addressed is a timetable along with funding for the acquisition of properties to be taken by the projects; resolution of where the Winslow Park playing fields would be relocated and stepped up plans to avert deicing fluid from polluting Buckeye Brook.

Ironically, much of what they are looking for was part of a memorandum of agreement reached about two years ago between the administration and RIAC and then rejected by the council. And just recently the Department of Environmental Management and RIAC reached an agreement on a $25 million system to collect and treat glycol that is used to deice planes.

Resident Michael Zarum, who likewise has closely followed airport developments, reminded the committee that the role of the City Council is to protect the constituents of Warwick. While he said he has respect for the unions and people who are unemployed, many of the comments from union representatives were “exaggerated,” as they cited “short-term” economic benefits. Also, he said, none of them address the fact that houses will come off the tax rolls if the runway is expanded.

Further, Zarum said the city is not solely responsible for the delay of the project. He said the FAA does not have the funding.