Airport manager position stokes simmering tensions between officials at airport, county

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

CARROLL COUNTY -- The question of whether the manager of the Carroll County Airport should be considered a county employee has stoked simmering tensions between officials at the airport and the county courthouse.

Those tensions came to a head at the Nov. 19 meeting of the Airport Commission. County Judge Sam Barr and Justices of the Peace Ronald Flake, Don McNeely, and John Reeves had attended that meeting to discuss another point of contention: The occupation by the Office of Emergency Management of an airport building and the resulting problems with FAA compliance.

Officials have made progress on the latter issue. (For more on that, read today's report on the OEM, also on this page.) However, as of Friday, officials had still not resolved the dispute over the manager.

The question was first raised by the Quorum Court Personnel Committee -- consisting of JPs Flake, McNeely, and Lamont Richie. While reviewing the county's personnel policies, Flake told commissioners, JPs discovered the statute that outlines the authorities of the commission.

Title 14, Chapter 357 of the Arkansas Code gives the commission nearly total autonomy over airport operations -- including the right to hire, fire, and set compensation for employees.

Flake said the statute seemed to indicate the manager was an employee of the commission, not the county.

"If the airport commission is going to hire and fire and control and set the pay rate for the airport manager," he said, "... we need to, in our funding of the airport, just provide whatever money we're going to budget, and the airport handle however their employees are going to be paid."

If, on the other hand, the county were to continue paying the manager's salary, Flake said, he would expect the commission to surrender their authority over the position.

"While the county has provided the function of paying her in the past," he said, "it's never been clear that the airport commission is giving up their control, so we've got a problem as far as I can tell."

Airport commissioners disagreed.

Commission Chairman Dave Teigen noted that the manager had been considered a county employee for the several decades the position had existed. The manager's salary had always been set by the quorum court, he said, and paid from county coffers.

Given this history, commissioners asked why the manager's status was suddenly being challenged.

"We have (set the manager's pay) in the past," Flake said, "but whether we legally can, I don't know, and the fact that it's been done for 30 years doesn't give us the right to do it."

Current Airport Manager Sheila Evans asked whether the questions were aimed at her personally.

"I would like to know for the record, just to get it out in the open, ... does this have anything to do with me being female?" she asked.

"This isn't aimed at you or anyone else," Flake responded. "It just happened to come up this year."

Despite his comments at the Nov. 19 meeting, Flake said Friday JPs did not wish to shift responsibility for the manager's salary to the commission.

"We're going to be paying her salary one way or another," he said.

On the contrary, Flake said he was concerned, in part, that the any vagueness about the manager's employment status could jeopardize her coverage under the county's employee health insurance policy.

So far, this has not been a problem. However, Flake said he wanted to be proactive.

Toward this goal, JPs have asked Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Devon Closser to advise them on the situation. As of Friday, she had not reached any conclusion. However, she said she hoped to present an opinion at the Dec. 14 meeting of the Quorum Court.

In the meantime, Teigen said commissioners had consulted their own attorney, who advised them the manager was a county employee. Teigen said the commission planned to request an Attorney General's opinion to further clarify the issue.

For her part, Evans said she was ready for some resolution.

Evans spent Thanksgiving at the airport, where a fuel pump had malfunctioned. She said she wanted to be on hand to explain the situation to pilots. She also treated them to dinner -- a smorgasbord that included Turkey, ham, and prime rib.

"By Monday, I didn't know what day it was because I worked the whole weekend," she said.

"This is a serious issue for me," she continued. "It really is. I've been told not to take it personally, but that's kind of hard."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: