Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk on Wednesday faced tense questioning from members of the town’s Airport Commission, just two days after she laid out a plan to overhaul the panel’s membership.
Burk proposed her changes to the Town Council on Monday,without first discussing the issues with commission members or even alerting them about her plans. That approach sparked frustration among members, who expressed bewilderment and concern with the mayor’s action.
Burk attended the commission’s regular monthly meeting by a video feed, with Councilmen Neil Steinberg and Zach Cummings also dialing in virtually and Councilwoman Suzanne Fox attending in person.
Burk noted the evolution of the airport from a small-town operation to one of the busiest in the commonwealth. She said it was time for the commission to have a more business-like structure and to be more directly responsive to the Town Council.
“It’s time for a change. It is time to move forward,” she said, adding that she had talked with representatives from 30 airport commissions, including one in England, to understand how they operate.
Of particular concern, Burk said, was that Leesburg’s commission traditionally is comprised of pilots based at the airport. She wants to get more business and community leaders involved. Representatives of the airport’s two fixed-base operators—which provide fuel, maintenance and storage—and of the four flight schools also should have seats, she said.
She also said the commission should operate as a more conventional town advisory panel with more Town Council oversight or perhaps convert to an airport authority, which would operate independently of the town.
“We need to have different voices and we need to start looking at that,” she said. “You all are doing an amazing job … but I do think it is time for change.”
It was the lack of advance communication and Burk’s characterization of the commission as an exclusive committee of town pilots that drew ire.
Commissioner Hugh Forsythe, a retired Air Force general who was tapped to fill a Town Council vacancy in 2017, noted two rules of management: Don’t keep doing things one way because that’s the way they’ve always been done, and if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. Other commission members endorsed the “it’s not broke” assessment.
“Why didn’t you talk with some of the committee members first,” Forsythe asked. He noted the mayor should have been aware the commission was working on proposals to better integrate the fixed-base operators. Also, he pointed out that while many members were pilots, they also are town business and community leaders.
As he pressed Burk to explain her motives, Burk said she had been approached by citizens who said changes were needed. She also pressed for more diversity, saying her appointment of Lindsay Arrington to the commission two years ago was met with resistance because she was a woman—a claim Forsythe and other members strongly denied.
Commissioner Tom Toth said the concern about the appointment of Arrington, the client relations supervisor at ProJet Aviation, was about the possibility of having the two FBOs controlling two seats on the seven-seat panel. In response, the commission had been discussing options to give ProJet and the second FBO led by Chuck Kuhn a more formal role in its work, but not necessarily a voting seat.
Toth raised a concern that Burk was taking her information from the FBOs instead of the commission members who have worked to modernize and expand the airport. Toth said he was not aware of any time the commission acted out of step with the wishes of the Town Council and other members said Burk’s comments reflected misconceptions about the commission’s actions and operations.
During the session, Burk objected to the tone of the questioning. “I don’t know why you’re afraid to have different voices in the room,” she said.
“Clearly, this is far more confrontational than I thought it was going to be,” Commission Chairman Dennis Boykin said.
He said part of the frustration was borne from commissioners’ decades-long efforts to build the airport from an ignored country airstrip to a modern airport, often without the support of town leaders and even battling efforts to close the operation and sell the land. While he said a new commission structure would not be the end of the world, Boykin warned against a “radical revision” to its operations.
While Burk said it was unlikely the commission would be asked to participate in the Town Council’s planned Jan. 25 work session on her proposed changes, Boykin said the commission hopes to have some constructive input to provide. The panel will hold a special meeting Jan. 20 to discuss some options.
Commissioners also were concerned about indications that Burk was pushing quick action, perhaps taking the proposed changes to a public hearing by next month. They suggested broader community input, with special meetings held with different interest groups.
Steinburg, the council’s appointed representative to the commission, agreed the transition could take several months. He said he also did not have advanced knowledge of the mayor’s plan, noting it was developed by Burk, Town Manager Kaj Dentler and Town Attorney Christopher Spera.
Kuhn said he supported the proposal to give the FBOs and flight schools more active roles in the commission. He said the town should expect the airport to change dramatically in the months ahead with FBO competition resulting in lower gas prices and plans moving forward to build new hangars on the west side of the airport property. Town leaders, he said, envision the airport’s operations five or 10 years in the future. “We need to think like that. We need to budget like that,“ he said.