Steller: New DM council ought to be open to the public

2014-01-15T00:00:00Z Steller: New DM council ought to be open to the publicTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You can understand the desire of Davis-Monthan’s base commander to have regular meetings with local elected officials.

Col. Kevin Blanchard used to have them on an individual, catch-as-catch-can basis that wasn’t ideal, he said at a briefing Tuesday afternoon.

Now he’s formed the new Davis-Monthan Tucson Valley Council as a forum for him to meet with elected officials from jurisdictions around the Tucson area. It makes a lot of sense: He can deal with them all, and they can deal with him, in one regular sitting, every couple of months or so.

Except for one thing: The meeting is closed to outsiders.

That fact has fired up many neighborhood representatives who have actively opposed the placement of noisier aircraft — especially the F-35 — at D-M. They view the new council as evading their concerns. The only member of the new council with any experience of aircraft noise and representing affected neighborhoods is Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, they noted.

“Marana, Oro Valley and Green Valley don’t have any common problems with D-M, other than they don’t want to see the base disbanded,” said Robin Gomez, who represents Colonia Solana on Tucson’s Military Community Relations Committee. With the new council, he added, “You’re marginalizing the complaining neighborhoods.”

Gomez has a long history with D-M on the committee, fighting the use of noisier aircraft as part of the base’s Operation Snowbird, which brings in pilots and aircraft from elsewhere for training.

For better or worse, the Military Community Relations Committee forms the backdrop to the new council. Now-retired Col. Kent Laughbaum, then the base commander, helped establish the committee in 2007 in response to issues such as unpredictable bursts of airplane noise. While the committee had early accomplishments, getting the easier jobs done quickly, it has become an exercise in frustration for many members.

“It’s my penance,” said member Mike Grassinger, who is also president of the military-support group the DM50. “It’s like the movie ‘Groundhog Day.’ We deal with the same issues.”

The key problem is that for the committee — a public entity with open meetings, agendas and minutes — to do anything, its bylaws require consensus. The members long ago achieved what they could by consensus.

The sense of pointlessness got so bad that last year Grassinger proposed disbanding the committee. Gomez declined to support the motion, after getting feedback from his neighborhood. It’s a symbol of the committee as a whole: They couldn’t even agree if it was worth continuing to exist. Now, instead of disbanding, they’ve held a retreat to try to find common ground for moving forward.

That brings us to this new Davis-Monthan Tucson Valley Council. The motion to disband the neighborhood-heavy committee occurred at about the same time as the idea of the new council came about. That may well have been a coincidence, but it left the impression of replacing the open, inclusive committee with the closed, exclusive council.

That’s not what Blanchard intended, he said Tuesday.

“The Davis-Monthan Tucson Valley Council fills a hole that was there,” he said. “We had no formal process to meet with local elected political leaders. It’s not meant to replace any of the things that have gone before.”

The meetings are scheduled to occur at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base unless someone else volunteers a site, Blanchard said. Although they are closed to the public, “nothing is classified or secret,” he said.

The intent of keeping the meetings closed is just to have an “open and frank discussion,” he said, adding that free-flowing conversation began right away at the first meeting in November. The next meeting is scheduled for February.

“Anyone at the meeting is free to go and hold a press conference,” he said.

But that’s not really the point, as Tucson City Council member Steve Kozachik told me.

Kozachik represents many of the neighborhoods where noise concerns have been the most serious.

“If the (new) council wants to be embraced, they ought to open the door and at least let people observe,” he said.

I sympathize with Blanchard’s desire for a no-fuss, regular forum. But holding the meeting off-base and opening it to the public in the name of transparency would give a simple boost to its credibility.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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