Public Sees Bullying in Truckee Airport Boardroom
By Ted Lipien
Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board Directors Mary Hetherington and Tom Van Berkem faced by Board President John Jones and Director James Morrison, Northstar California, February 12, 2015.
Public sees bullying in Truckee Tahoe Airport boardroom, a pro-evironment airport board director said.
What I saw from my own perspective as a local resident, member of the public and journalist was also blaming the reported victim and treating her and the public in a patronizing manner. I observed attributing to Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board member Mary Hetherington traits, which I never saw in her after attending many board meetings during the last two years as a local registered voter, but which I had observed about some of the other board members making these claims about her.
Two elected Truckee Airport officials implied that Ms. Hetherington somehow focused too much of her attention on her neighbors and not enough on the very small number of users of the airport for aviation services or local residents in outlying areas who are less affected by plane noise than those who live in Truckee. Yet, as I have learned, Ms. Hetherington’s personal background is similar to the vast majority of the District’s residents. I saw at various public meetings and through private conversations that most voters also appear to share the same environmental and quality of life concerns as she does.
Board directors criticizing Ms. Hetherington impressed me as not only being vastly different from the majority of local voters in terms of their social-economic status and their own use of the Truckee airport for personal convenience (not flying to Reno instead and sparing mostly lower and middle class neighborhoods and the fragile mountain environment noise and carbon footprint from their planes), but I also observed them constantly and unabashedly supporting the interests of a tiny minority of affluent private jet owners, land developers, and a few local businesses and NGOs. They justify using public money for the benefit of a few individuals, businesses and groups on the grounds that it serves the entire community by keeping jobs in the region and promoting commerce.
Talk about the pot calling the kettle black
Ignoring long-term damage to the environment in pursuance of personal convenience and benefits for a small constituency, some Truckee Airport board members are willing to call for spending public funds for privileged groups, selective businesses and some nonprofits while criticizing Ms. Hetherington when she speaks up for a much larger number of local residents. Her critics almost never talk about environmental and other costs of increasing jet traffic and its long-term negative impact on the region, although lately they have started to voice some concern for the environment, but without changing any of their previous positions. Ms. Hetherington has been talking about the environment for a long time, as have to some degree two other Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board directors, Tom Van Berkem and Lisa Wallace.
What I also saw was an attempt to marginalize Ms. Hetherington and her remarks by implying that the reported bullying victim herself may have been guilty of negativity (whatever that means) and aggressiveness. Strong criticism was mixed with a few minor praises, but some members of the public still saw it as bullying, rudeness and patronizing attitude.
This treatment appears to be largely in response to Ms. Hetherington vigorous pro-quality of life stands on behalf of the majority of lower and middle class local residents. Some of them watch Truckee Tahoe Airport District open board meetings streamed online, during which Ms. Hetherington opposed or expressed her reservations about several airport expansion and construction projects. Many local residents feel that these projects lead to more plane traffic and jet noise over Truckee, as well as to more street traffic, other disturbances and a transformation of a largely resort community into an semi-urban, suburban or even semi-industrial area not too far from Donner and Tahoe lakes. When Ms. Hetherington raises these issues, she is often interrupted by board members who disagree with her positions.
“Well, you talk too much.”
At a public meeting last December, Truckee Airport Board President John Jones said that Mary Hetherington talks too much. He made this statement soon after she suggested that rotating the position of the board president, according to past practices, might be better for this elected body. After some gasps in the audience in response to Mr. Jones’ “Well, you talk too much” remark, he quickly apologized to Ms. Hetherington, saying that “it was a mild joke.” Almost immediately after making his comment, Mr. Jones was reelected to continue as the board’s president, with three other board members voting for him. Ms. Hetherington abstained.
More jet hangars for Truckee
Mr. Jones and another board member, local builder James Morrison, appear to be the strongest supporters of constructing jet hangars and launching other expansion projects at the airport, which is partly funded by the $4.3 million annual property tax subsidy from local residents. Many local residents may not even be aware that such an annual subsidy for the Truckee Airport exists using their property tax dollars. They may become upset when they learn that their tax money is used to benefit a few rich private jet travelers while the town and the area can’t even afford a decent Public Library and better schools.
Public awareness in the Tahoe region of long-term negative effects of increased jet traffic, noise and pollution is also limited. Diminished quality of life for local residents and declines of lower and middle class home values in some neighborhoods are feared due to forecasts for even more jet traffic in the area if Truckee Airport officials fail to take effective countermeasures, as they have so far. Jet noise and jet traffic are increasing even though Truckee Airport officials constantly talk about mitigation measures.
Most residents are not at all aware of jet use growth forecasts or the fact that jet traffic and jet noise complaints had already increased sharply last summer. Some of this information, although available online, is not widely shared by the Airport.
In talking about this and similar problems, Ms. Hetherington has also expressed concerns about a long-term damage to Truckee’s small town resort character, which attracts both residents and tourists and constitutes the ultimate economic basis of the community. Once this unique environmental attractiveness of the area is damaged or destroyed, tourists and new residents will have much less incentive to come to vist and live in this town.
“You are being bullied. They are being rude to you.”
At a board retreat last Thursday, which was a meeting open to the public, Ms. Hetherington said that a local resident who watches Truckee Airport board discussions on television told her that she was upset by the way her elected representative was being treated by some of the other elected board members.
The woman reportedly told her: “You are being bullied. They are being rude to you.”
It was not Ms. Hetherington who said that she was being bullied and treated rudely. She said that she was only repeating what some of her neighbors had told her, but she added that she found such public perceptions highly disturbing.
I was the only person not connected in any way with the airport or doing any business with the airport who attended the board retreat as a member of the public and a reporter. Unlike what happens at regular board meetings, a video recording of this one was not streamed live or posted online for on-demand viewing. No video recording was made by Airport staff. EcoTruckee.org had to record the audio on its own for reporting purposes.
“You are wasting my time”
If anything, the treatment of Ms. Hetheringon at the retreat meeting got even worse. Board President John Jones told her that she was wasting his time with her questions about the proposed project of building numerous jet hangars, which he strongly supports.
“You dominate board time, and you dominate board time by bringing in related topics, but they’re not on point topics,” Mr. Jones said. “But, you’re a very caring person,” he added.
He also later used the word “devious” in describing her actions and repeated that Ms. Hetherington’s questions were “a waste of everyone’s time.”
Even the moderator, who was being paid by the Airport, said that the use of such expressions as “you wasted my time” shows contempt for another person and must be avoided. The moderator also urged Mr. Jones several times to stop interrupting Ms. Hetherington when she was speaking. He did after saying “I’m upsetting my dog.”
“The silence and violence thing.”
In response to a moderator’s request to resolve conflicts on the board by talking about them and disclosing “hidden agendas,” Mr. Morrison said that he gets a lot of “silence and violence” out of Ms. Hetherington’s statements. The “silence and violence” phrase was mentioned earlier by the moderator and a staffer as something which board members ought to avoided.
“I get it from you a lot.”
“I get it from you a lot,” Mr. Morrison said about “the silence and violence thing,” referring to Ms. Hetherington. “I’m totally willing to hear you, and I don’t want to be rude to you,” he added.
Mr. Morrison said that he would try not too interrupt Ms. Hetherington, but he also said that he was not trying to interrupt her. The implication was that she may have misinterpreted his motives, but it seems that a member of the public who reportedly complained to Ms. Hetherington clearly saw it differently.
“I have a ton of respect for you,” Mr. Morrison also said. He expressed appreciation for Ms. Hetherington’s different points of view, and made various other remarks about the importance of working together and emphasizing the positive.
There was a lot of this kind of talk in favor of good manners, but followed by more criticism of Ms. Hetherington. Mr. Jones also said that she was a caring person before accusing her of wasting his time.
Tom Van Berkem – “Mary did not waste my time.”
Director Tom Van Berkem did not join the others in the criticism of Ms. Hetherington. He said that not only Ms. Hetherington did not waste his time, but raised very valid points, whether one agreed or disagreed with them.
He also said that he shares many of her quality of life and environmental concerns.
Eco-friendly and pro-tourism alternative to private jet flights over Truckee
At the meeting last Thursday, Director Van Berkem joined Ms. Hetherington in talking about helping to protect the local environment and the character of the area for future generations. He said that this could be done by promoting ecotourism and meeting new demands for travel by encouraging private jet owners and passengers to use the commercial airport in urban Reno instead of flying to Truckee. He also revealed that in the past he himself would fly a corporate jet to Reno instead of Truckee in order not to disturb his neighbors and to show that he abides by his commitment to protect the fragile environment of the Truckee Tahoe region. He also disclosed that his neighbors in Northstar are now often complaining to him about growing jet traffic and jet noise over their homes.
Mr. Van Berkem emphasized his view that the board and the staff should consider the alternatives to facilitating the growth of Truckee airport jet traffic out of concern not only for current home owners, but especially for future generations, their children and grandchildren. He said that the idea that new residents and tourists would not come to the area if they don’t fly to Truckee is simply not true.
“When was the last time you got on a shuttle bus like that?”
Neither Board President Jones nor Director Morrison, both of whom are believed to be pilots, expressed support for Mr. Van Berkem’s idea of encouraging private jet traffic to use the Reno airport and continue their travel to the Truckee Tahoe area from Reno by shuttle bus or by car. There are very few if any small resort towns in the United States or in Europe that have airports almost next to their town center.
“Some people wouldn’t come, Tom,” Mr. Morrison said in response to Mr. Van Berkem’s idea. “When was the last time you got on a shuttle bus like that?,” Mr. Morrison asked.
One person – one vote
As a resident of a middle class neighborhood in Truckee, Ms. Hetherington is much more representative of the majority of the Airport District voters than most of the other board members, but Mr. Jones and Mr. Morrison seem to imply that she cared too much about middle class neighborhoods where she lives. Mr. Jones tried to show how much the commercial sector and affluent non-residents (second home owners) contribute in taxes to the Airport District’s tax subsidy and to the economic growth of the area in general.
To me, some board members appear to have a difficulty in identifying what is the community or communities they are elected by voters to serve. It comes down to the understanding of the democratic idea of “one person – one vote.” Among other things, “One person – one vote” means, at least to me, that in terms of needs for spending public money on public services and treatment by public officials, it does not matter how much one individual or any special interest group contributes in tax revenues or business activity. This should be true at least in principle, because we know that in practice the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the very rich has continued in the United States for some years with the encouragement of most elected officials.
Special treatment for the few
Needs and concerns of one lower or middle class voter in Truckee or Kings Beach should be as important for elected officials as needs and concerns of one affluent second home owner who flies a private jet and lives in a multi-million dollar weekend mansion. The Truckee Airport Board members are elected by and represent the District voters, and nobody else. They should only act to address what the voters consider to be their needs, concerns and priorities. Each voter is just as important as the next one.
While elected officials are free to interpret what the voters want them to do for them and for any non-voters, they should not give more weight to a small number of individuals because they are rich and privileged or to any small special interest group, especially if their behavior is harmful to the quality of life of the majority of local residents. They should not do this even more so, if any actions of these individuals and groups increase the harm to the environment for current residents and future generations. The Truckee Airport Board members are not representing anybody else who is not a local voter, unless the voters agree that they should on certain issues.
Since there are thousands of lower and middle class voters and only very few plane owners in the area, cumulatively the views of the majority should be far more important for elected officials serving on the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board of Directors. If anything, the Airport Board should be protecting the larger community from individuals who choose to damage the local environment and quality of life of local residents because they think they are too important to take extra minutes to commute to their homes or resorts from the Reno airport.
Unlike trains, I-80 or commercial airports, such as the one in Reno, almost any use of the Truckee airport for anything else than emergency flights is entirely optional. It is done only out of personal convenience, and it serves only a very small segment of the local population. There are no economically viable options for using I-80 or moving goods and people by trains through Truckee, but there are many viable and ecologically far better and safer options to using the Truckee airport. Almost anyone can take a commercial flight or even a private jet flight to Reno.
What should the Truckee Airport Board do?
As Mr. Van Berkem observed, there are alternatives to the use of the Truckee airport. Not using it does not mean that tourists will not come to visit the town and the region. More tourists could come and spend more money locally in response to an ecotourism appeal. They will be more likely to come if they are not disturbed by constant jet noise and heavy road traffic between many overdeveloped residential areas separated by deteriorating strip malls as new construction takes place in whatever empty space is still left in and around Truckee.
Rather than contribute public money (not their own) to their pet social projects in an attempt to buy public support with tax money (not their own) for continuing the tax subsidy which benefits mostly rich aviation users, Truckee Tahoe Airport District board members should focus instead on three things:
- Safety at this one of the most dangerous general aviation airports in the country (less air traffic is safer).
- Discouraging jet traffic to Truckee and encouraging use of nearby commercial airports.
- Using public money only for projects that are directly related to the airport operations; not harming the environment with new construction but enhancing it (such as buying more land for public use).
The Truckee Airport should avoid being in the commercial construction business that competes with local companies and causes damage to the quality of life of a large number of local residents. At the last meeting, pro-construction directors said that they want some air traffic growth, but not necessarily to keep pace with the population growth. They were not more specific and did not offer to drop their support for building more jet hangars and other construction projects.
Rudeness to the public
A sense of privilege much more than a spirit of public service and democracy seems to me to be guiding the behavior of at least some of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board members.
- One director has been observed checking his private emails during public board meetings and even admitted to doing this.
- A director said recently that he’d rather be doing something else than to accept additional board duties.
- At least one director said that since they are paid very little for their public service (true), he already contributes a lot.
- The board president was heard saying “good” when there were no comments from the public at one of the board meetings.
- Accusing a board member who ultimately represents the public of talking too much and wasting time was seen as a comment on the public.
- Describing residents who complain about plane noise as “squeaky wheels,” or a few odd individuals.
- Implying that local residents who complain about jet noise suffer from class envy.
- Releasing highly private details, including medical information, about unidentified noise complainers to prove that they are uncommonly sensitive or strange.
- Some of the male directors using patronizing tone when addressing members of the public, particularly women.
We love our community; we contribute to it a lot; we have deep respect for the environment; we’re doing everything possible to minimize plane noise; building more jet hangars will not lead to increased jet traffic; don’t worry; be positive; these are complicated technical issues only experts like us can work through; we won’t let anything bad happen; private aviation is great for local businesses; private jet travel is essential for social and economic growth; it creates and keeps good jobs in the community; we’re only meeting the growing needs; you can’t stop growth; don’t talk too much; don’t say you represent the community, we do too; don’t be negative, Dear.
This seems to be the message from at least some of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District board members to the local public.
And after a member of the public spoke at a recent meeting, a board director was overheard saying under his breath: “Thank you for your subjective [Emphasis added.] comments.”
Ted Lipien is a journalist, writer and media freedom nonprofit NGO director. His articles have been published in The Washington Times, The Washington Examiner, National Review, American Diplomacy Journal and in other newspapers and magazines. His investigative journalism work has been noted by NPR, Fox News, Congressional Record, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications. Much of his previous work as a Voice of America journalist focused on Soviet propaganda and disinformation. He is the author of “Wojtyla’s Women: How They Shaped the Life of Pope John Paul II and Changed the Catholic Church,” (London: O-Books, 2008)