Charged rhetoric from commissioners comes on the heels of public cries about a lucrative compensation package recently awarded to RTAA CEO Krys Bart and reflect concerns also held within Sparks government about the quasi-public nature of the airport authority.
For years before the recent revelation about Bart’s pay, the RTAA had denied open records requests for its CEO’s and upper-management’s compensation details. Washoe County and the cities of Reno and Sparks, as well as citizen and private industry inquiries, including the Sparks Tribune, have been turned away or received only silence.
“There seems to be a continued cloud of secrecy” within the RTAA, said Commissioner Bob Larkin.
Several other commissioners echoed the feeling that the RTAA was not operating in an open and transparent fashion.
“A lot of people in the community believe the trustees have been tone deaf to their concerns,” said Commissioner David Humke.
John Sande III, legal counsel for the airport authority, told the commission Tuesday that the CEO is not considered a public officer under Nevada law, even while Bart, like all airport workers, contribute to and receive benefits from the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
Bart’s new compensation package, which includes annual salary increases over the next three years and $300,000 in bonuses, for a total of $1.09 million for the term of her contract, was only released in December after a public relations fiasco forced the RTAA board’s hand.
Many individuals came to Bart’s defense during public comment at the commission meeting Tuesday, attesting to her esteemed talents and the many successes the airport has achieved during her 12-year tenure.
But while some commissioners expressed dissatisfaction with Bart’s salary increase in a time when public agencies are making layoffs, enacting furloughs and reducing wages, the real point of contention centered on the RTAA’s repeated insistence that it is not a public body and therefore not required to release employee wage information.
The RTAA’s position, however, runs counter to Nevada statutes and the airport’s own funding streams.
In addition to participating in PERS, under the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority Act the RTAA is clearly identified as a public entity in several respects, including that it is subject to the state’s open meeting law and is exempt from state, county and local taxation. The act also states that Washoe County, Sparks and Reno governments appoint RTAA’s board of trustees and that it has the power to exercise eminent domain laws and levy taxes, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “fees,” within its territorial boundaries.
A recent RTAA presentation highlighted that the agency receives millions of dollars in federal funding annually for capital projects.
Furthermore, the statute establishing the RTAA in 1977 unequivocally states that it is a “public employer” and that it exists “for a public and governmental purpose and a matter of public necessity.”
County commissioners are not the only local government officials who for years have said the RTAA is indeed a public agency despite the airport authority’s statements to the contrary.
Sparks Councilman Ron Schmitt said he has long been concerned about the City Council’s seeming inability to express concerns about the RTAA to its trustees, who cannot be removed from their appointment prior to the end of a four-year term.
“It’s frustrating,” he said. “Where’s the taxpayers’ representation?”
Stephen Driscoll, assistant Sparks city manager, said several requests for the RTAA to divulge its CEO’s salary had been refused in recent years.
Mayor Geno Martini said that while he is satisfied with the work of the city’s appointees to the airport authority, there is a “perception that we can’t direct them.”
The council has been informed that statutes prohibit them from advising appointees on how to vote at RTAA board meetings.
Martini wants the council to be kept more in the loop.
“If (the RTAA) receives any federal funding … they should be subject to the same laws and rules we are” at the city government, he said.
City officials said they hoped to address their concerns with appointees at a council meeting in February.
But while city officials lament their ineffectual role in overseeing the RTAA, county commissioners have taken the unprecedented step of approving a motion to request the full compensation package contracts of the airport authority’s CEO and top 25 percent of management.
The commission on Tuesday also voted to continue an agenda item that will allow one of its appointees, Randi Thompson, to appear before the board to answer questions about the public-private controversy. In addition, bringing the issue before the Nevada Legislature this year was discussed.
“It’s a matter of accountability,” Commissioner Bonnie Weber said.