Challengers raise issues in heated airport race

For years, those running for a spot to oversee the small Vashon Municipal Airport faced no opposition. Now, with the Nov. 3 mail-in election in full swing, the airport commissioners’ race is arguably the most hotly contested and politically charged battle on the Island.

Two men, George Kirkish and Ron Mitchell, are trying to unseat two of the three incumbents, Al Paxhia and Phil McClure. And they’re pulling out all the stops.

In the last couple of weeks, Kirkish, a winemaker who owns a charter flight business, and Mitchell, a general contractor, have hung huge banners around the Island promoting their candidacy. They’ve passed out fliers accusing the current commissioners of trying to bring an urban-style airport to rural Vashon. And they’ve set up a blog charging the current commissioners with, among other things, “ruthless” behavior resulting in “numerous lawsuits.”

Adding a twist to the charged race, there’s no response from the incumbents. That’s because Paxhia, a retired Boeing manager, and McClure, a real estate agent, are traveling with their wives for three weeks in Europe — plans they made eight months ago, before they knew they’d face opposition in the race.

The contest has raised eyebrows, in part because of the tenor of the charges Kirkish and Mitchell have made and because some of the claims aren’t true.

The airport, for instance, faces no lawsuits nor has it for the past decade or more, according to the airport’s lawyer, Val Tollefon.

What’s more, there’s no evidence that the commissioners are trying to create a bigger airport. A study by an engineering firm, available in the Vashon Library, listed several options the commissioners could take in an effort to make the airport safer, including paving the runway and making it longer. The commissioners voted for a different option — a series of safety measures that don’t enlarge the airport’s footprint.

Liz Otis, an incumbent who’s running unopposed for a second term, expressed frustration over what she called “Rush Limbaugh-style politics.” The charge that the commissioners are trying to create a bigger airport, she added, “is an outright lie.”

A flier Kirkish and Mitchell handed out at a candidates’ forum last week depicts an aerial photograph of the Vashon Airport next to an aerial photograph of the Renton Airport. Above the pictures, a headline reads, “What do you want for the Future of the Vashon Airport?” Below the photos, it adds, “THIS or THIS?”

During the question-and-answer period at the candidates’ forum, Guido Perla, who owns a hangar at the airport, expressed frustration over the flier, labeling it “propaganda.”

Kirkish responded: “I really have the feeling that (the commissioners) want to pave the runway. I don’t care what they say.”

“The commissioners have been in office a long time,” he added. “It’s time for a change. It’s time for some new blood.”

The Vashon Municipal Airport, so named because its only governance is that provided by the three commissioners, is an anomaly in the aviation world — it’s the only public airport with a grass runway in the state, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). With a short runway and a steep descent into it, the airport is also fairly quiet; some pilots simply can’t land on its short, grass runway, pilots say.

The airport has also been riven by controversy for the past year or so, in part because of the incumbents’ efforts to secure an FAA grant to address what they see as several safety issues. In the process, the commissioners have issued a number of rules and regulations and drafted a new master lease with its main tenant, Vashon Air Service (VAS) — all part of an effort, the commissioners say, to professionalize the operation.

But some have been frustrated by the way the current set of commissioners work. They don’t issue agendas in advance of their monthly meetings, for instance, and while the meetings are public, the commissioners often go into executive session, Kirkish says.

Particularly upsetting, according to Kirkish and Mitchell, was the commissioners’ decision to rewrite the master lease that governs Vashon Air Service (VAS) — again, according to the challengers, actions that took place with little public notice. VAS has subleases with the owners of the 44 hangars on the site; once the new master lease was issued, VAS president Bob Therkelsen issued new subleases to the tenants.

Therkelsen said the new leases bring industry standards to an airport that some have tried to run like a private flying club. Kirkish and Mitchell say it gives the commissioners more authority and power.

“Everybody uses common sense. Pilots are safety-minded,” Mitchell said. “To take a position that we need to be policed is ridiculous. I’m anti-big government.”

Kirkish called the new rules “absurd,” adding, “Who’s going to enforce them?” Asked to what rules he particularly takes issues with, he added, “There’s so many absurdities, it’s hard to pick just one.”

But both McClure and Paxhia, in interviews be-fore they left for Europe and in statements read by Therkelsen at the candidates’ forum, defended their record, noting that through their efforts the airport has secured an FAA grant that will do much to make the airport safer. Both have been in office for several consecutive terms — Paxhia 13 years and McClure 12 years.

The grant, for instance, will enable them to get rid of the ditch that parallels the runway, top or remove hazard trees and bury dangerous overhead wires that pilots have to clear when they land or take off.

“It’s important that we retain the flavor of the airport, but we also need to keep it safe,” said Paxhia, who faces Kirkish in the election.

All of this is happening without the expenditure of any local dollars, he added. “The airport pays its own way,” he said in the statement Therkelsen read.

The challengers agreed with the need for some of the safety improvements but contend many of them could have been done long ago or without FAA money.

Paxhia and McClure left the Island just before Kirkish and Mitchell issued their flier or established their blog. Even so, the two incumbents seemed to anticipate the tenor of the campaign and said they wouldn’t engage in a war of words.

“While I expect some finger-pointing or use of unfounded or inflammatory words, I will not be party to this,” McClure said in the statement Therkelsen read. “I prefer to stand on what I helped to accomplish.”

Added Paxhia, in his

interview with The Beach-comber: “George is a nice guy. I think it’s petty of me to attack him.”

Kirkish, in fact, gave Paxhia flight lessons.

But while the four men seem to agree on little in the heated contest, all four of them underscored the importance of the Vashon Airport — a site that could provide a lifeline for the Island in the course of a disaster big enough to disable the Island’s two ferry docks.

“It’s really nice to have a local airport. It should be used in an Island spirit,” Kirkish said.

On this score, all four seem to agree. Said McClure, “We’re trying to make sure that the airport stays as it is — a small community airport that serves the community’s needs.”

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