State auditor proposes overhauling board overseeing Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky airport

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen proposed an expanded two-state role Tuesday for overseeing the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, saying the overhaul is needed to halt turmoil on an airport board plagued by resignations and questions about lavish spending at conferences.

Edelen recommended creation of a new 11-member airport board consisting of eight appointments from Kentucky and three in Ohio.

Currently, the judge-executive in Kenton County, Kentucky, appoints the seven voting members of the board's executive committee.

That system — in place since the 1940s — allowed the airport to become a "political appendage" of the county's top-elected official, Edelen said.

"One individual literally controls an airport that serves a region of 2.1 million people and is critical to the economic vitality of the area," he said during an appearance in Florence, Kentucky, to announce recommendations from his office's review of the airport situated in northern Kentucky.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley praised Edelen for showing "political courage" in recommending Ohio representation on the airport board.

Cranley said he routinely hears airport-related concerns from business leaders. He said the loss of flights at the area's airport was a factor in the decision by banana giant Chiquita Brands International to move its headquarters out of Cincinnati.

"The one Achilles heel for our region taking off is literally making sure we have more flights take off" at the area's airport, he said.

Edelen said the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky airport routinely ranks as one of the country's most expensive and has lost hundreds of daily flights since 2005. He said the board's dysfunction can't be allowed to hinder efforts to attract new flights and air carriers.

Airport officials did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment.

Edelen said his proposal to revamp the airport board is a starting point. The plan would require approval by the Kentucky General Assembly.

Kris Knochelmann, in line to become Kenton County's next judge-executive, said Tuesday he planned to work with area legislators to draft a bill to restructure the airport board. Knochelmann won the Republican primary in the spring and is unopposed in the general election.

"Sometimes, the only way to reform a broken institution is by starting over," he said.

One local lawmaker — state Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill — said he opposed ceding some of the board's voting authority to another state.

"We would be remiss to begin to give any degree of oversight of our airport to folks from another state," he said by phone. "Northern Kentucky, we depend on Cincinnati for a lot of things. One of the assets that we do control is the airport."

Knochelmann said Kentucky would retain board control, but the airport would be strengthened by a regional approach to its oversight.

Under Edelen's proposal, the Kenton County judge-executive would choose three airport board members. Judge-executives in Boone and Campbell counties in Kentucky would choose two and one, respectively. Their choices would have to be confirmed by the local fiscal courts.

Kentucky's governor would make two appointments.

In Ohio, the governor, Cincinnati mayor and Hamilton County Board of Commissioners would appoint one member each.

McDaniel said he would be open to considering an appointment role for the Boone and Campbell county judge-executives and Kentucky's governor.

Edelen said the airport board's problems have been long running, part of an "ongoing culture" enabled by a flawed governance system.

Three airport board members stepped down earlier this year, including the chairman and vice chairman. The departures came amid turmoil that included questions about spending that prompted the investigation by the state auditor's office.

The audit pointed out that the airport spent more than $100,000 on travel and meals at four conferences, Edelen said. At one conference in Canada, the airport sent 11 board and advisory committee members, plus the CEO, board attorney and Kenton County judge-executive, Edelen said.

Edelen said the airport's contingent didn't learn an important lesson from one conference — where participants were warned against allowing any one individual or entity to control the majority of appointments.

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