Mitchell Airport Transfer Born in Secrecy

Mar. 18--More than three years before the public knew about it, business lobbyists were drafting a bill to create a regional airport authority that would take control of Mitchell International Airport away from Milwaukee County government.

And a key priority in those behind-the-scenes talks was ensuring that neither the County Board nor county voters would have a say in the handover.

One reason for cutting supervisors out of the action -- and barring the governor and Milwaukee County executive from appointing any elected officials to the authority's seven-member board -- was business leaders' fear that elected officials would block future airport expansion that would likely require buying and bulldozing nearhomes.

Those details about the failed legislation emerged from e-mails and documents released Supervisor Richard D. Nyklewicz Jr. -- after he filed open-records requests to get them -- and from interviews.

State Rep. Jeff Stone (R-Greendale), Sen. Jeff Plale (D-South Milwaukee) and Rep. Mark Honadel (R-South Milwaukee) announced plans in December for a bill to create an airport authority funded user fees, with no taxing power. But the bill's language didn't become public until it was introduced March 3 -- just four days before a public hearing.

The Assembly's Urban and Local Affairs Committee didn't vote on the bill, effectively shelving it for the year. Stone says he plans to bring it back in the next session.

Business interests, led the Greater Milwaukee Committee and the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, have long pushed for the airport authority. They say airport officials could act faster outside the county bureaucracy, and that one county shouldn't have sole control over such a major regional economic asset.

Nyklewicz, whose district includes the airport, joined most other county supervisors in arguing that the county should not lose control of an airport it has managed well.

Expansion opposition feared

MMAC Vice President Pete Beitzel said he agreed that the county was doing a good job now, but he was concerned about future leaders. He pointed to a time in the 1980s when supervisors representing districts near the airport controlled four of seven seats on the board's transportation committee, with the late Supervisor Daniel Cupertino Jr. holding the chairmanship.

"He made a statement that 'Over my dead body is there going to be another runway,' " Beitzel said of Cupertino, who represented Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood and St. Francis. "If the (future) committee decides it doesn't want anything to do with airport expansion, the region is screwed."

Beitzel described the airport as "probably the most important economic development asset in the state" and noted that 60% of its users live outside Milwaukee County. He said Mitchell's future growth should not be decided "the parochial interests of people who have every right to have a representative, but not to control the airport."

Those same concerns were "absolutely" the reason why the legislation banned elected officials from the airport authority's board, Beitzel said.

Supervisor James White, the current chairman of the County Board's Transportation, Public Works and Transit Committee, called the move to take the airport away from the county without a County Board vote or a referendum "the most anti-democratic proposal that has come through here in a long time."

Stone said he understood the expansion concern but was more focused on governing the airport "in a more modern way." He said future versions of the legislation might remove the ban on elected officials.

Sidestepping obstacle

As early as 2002, airport authority supporters had given up hope of persuading the County Board to agree to the authority, documents show.

On March 4 of that year, Richard Weiss, an attorney at Foley & Lardner, sent MMAC President Tim Sheehy his draft of a bill to create an airport authority, and asked for Sheehy's comments.

Weiss was experienced in dealing with special government districts, having represented the Milwaukee Brewers and the Green Bay Packers in the debates that led to creation of Wisconsin's two stadium districts. Beitzel said Weiss and his firm had volunteered their expertise on the issue for free since the 1990s.

In his memo, Weiss said his draft would require a referendum to create the airport authority because "it will be easier to win the referendum than to persuade the County Board to transfer the airports," referring to both Mitchell and Timmerman airports.

Someone wrote "NO," "state create" and "no elected officials" in the margins of the memo and the draft. Beitzel said he didn't know who wrote those comments. But the referendum was deleted from subsequent drafts, which called for the Legislature to create the airport authority without County Board or voter consent and with no elected officials on the authority board.

The Weiss drafts may have played a role when Stone took up the idea in early 2005. E-mails between Stone aide Marsha Dake, Legislative Reference Bureau attorneys and Dana Lach, another Foley & Lardner attorney, suggest Lach and Stone had updated the last Weiss draft and sent it to the bureau as drafting instructions for the airport authority bill. Lach then worked with state attorneys as they drafted the bill, the e-mails show.

Lach said it was her firm's policy not to comment on client matters. Stone said it was common for outside interests with special expertise to be involved in drafting bills.

Among those who saw the first Legislative Reference Bureau draft in October 2005 was Carol Skornicka, senior vice president for corporate affairs at Midwest Airlines. She misread the draft and warned MMAC lobbyist Steve Baas e-mail that it would give the County Board the power to create the authority.

"Good catch," Baas replied e-mail. "That would clearly be a problem."

In an interview this week, Baas said the MMAC wanted the state to create the airport authority because "our goal was to get it done," and that was "the most efficient way to do it."

Skornicka still thought in January that the legislation would put the County Board in charge of creating the district. In a Jan. 3 e-mail to Baas, she wrote, "Getting this through the Legislature will be a piece of cake compared to getting the County Board to establish the district! We need a couple of champions on the County Board asap to prevent an anti-district movement from building up steam."

Those champions never emerged. Later in January, 17 of 19 supervisors signed a letter opposing the idea.

Skornicka said Friday that her comments reflected her belief that supervisors' views on the issue were important and should not be ignored.