Vice mayor calls for airport audit

bfortune@herald-leader.comNovember 26, 2008 

Lexington Vice Mayor Jim Gray on Tuesday called for a "thorough investigation" of expenses by Blue Grass Airport's executive director through an audit by the city or the state auditor.

"What we need is an independent examination of this situation," Gray said. "Especially in these times of economic and financial adversity, perception of public trust and accountability in our institutions is more important than ever."

Gray was responding to articles Sunday in the Herald-Leader about airport executive director Michael Gobb's expenses in excess of $200,000 for trips and other expenses from January 2006 through March 2008.

"My own sense is if the reports are accurate, we have issues of governance and accountability, at a minimum," Gray said.

Airport officials released a statement saying that the airport board gives "a comprehensive financial audit to the urban county council for review each year. ... Not surprisingly, the airport has consistently received a clean bill of fiscal health from its auditors."

Gray expressed his concerns at a special meeting of the council's Committee of the Whole that met Tuesday morning to discuss reorganization of the council committee structure. Fourteen of the council's 15 members were there.

Several council members said they also were concerned, if not about actual wasteful spending, at least about a perception of unwise spending. Among them was David Stevens, who is a member of the airport board as well as a council member.

He agreed there was a problem the airport board needed to address.

The city has an obligation for a level of oversight that perhaps it has not exercised, Stevens said.

The airport is owned by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Airport Corp., a public, non-profit organization. The 10-member airport board is appointed by the mayor of Lexington and confirmed by the Urban County Council.

Council members did not take immediate action, but Gray said he will talk to Mayor Jim Newberry about the council's concerns and the need for an independent audit.

State Auditor Crit Luallen's office probably would be asked to conduct the audit.

"There were serious questions raised in the Herald-Leader article regarding expenses at the Blue Grass Airport," Luallen said in an e-mail statement Tuesday. "We look forward to hearing from Lexington metro government to see what steps it will take in this matter before my office decides what role to play."

The statement from airport officials noted that the airport "has always been committed to maintaining the public trust," but did not comment on the need for a further audit.

"We believe Vice Mayor Jim Gray's and State Auditor Crit Luallen's recent statements are an understandable reaction to a misleading story that appeared in the local media recently," the statement said.

In a follow-up interview, airport spokesman Brian Elle stad would not specify what was 'misleading' about the Herald-Leader story.

Bernard Lovely, the airport board's chairman and a spokesman for the airport on Gobb's expenses, did not return telephone calls seeking specifics.

Newberry issued a statement Monday saying that he had confidence in the airport board's ability to oversee the duties of the airport's executive director. He declined to comment further on Tuesday, except to say that he had offered Gray a copy of the airport's 2008 audit.

"The context for intervention by the city is that the city owns the airport," Gray said in an e-mail message. "Hence we have a responsibility and an obligation to examine any issues which affect accountability and public trust."

Stevens said he hopes the airport board will take up the issue of Gobb's expenses.

He also said that airport board members "usually watch every dollar" of the $11.8 million annual budget.

Council member Dick DeCamp recommended that the council write a letter to the board to say that, at a time of belt-tightening, there is a perception that "a lot of money was spent on extra things ... and hopefully they will rectify it." DeCamp, who served on the airport board for nine years, left it at the end of 2007.

The letter also should state that council members have received e-mails from constituents expressing concern about the expenditures, council member Linda Gorton said.

Current economic conditions aside, "in the best of times, this would not be proper," council member Julian Beard said.

Reach Beverly Fortune at (859) 231-3251 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3251.

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