Friday, June 6, 2008

Airport board moves slowly on ‘strategist’

Regional firm awarded short-term contract

Express Staff Writer

Rather than agreeing to a long-term contract now, the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority is moving tentatively on contracting with a "communications strategist" to develop a two-way flow of information with the public on progress in finding a site for a replacement airport for Friedman.

After a lengthy back-and-forth on pros and cons, the governing body voted to engage Gallatin Public Affairs, formerly the Gallatin Group, for two months at $7,500 per month to develop a plan for a longer-term operation.

Gallatin's president, Marc Johnson, of Boise, who worked on the staff of Idaho's former Gov. Cecil Andrus, agreed to the arrangement and said he would return with a plan for a full strategic communications program. Andrus is on then board of Gallatin, which has offices in Boise; Portland; Spokane, Wash.; Helena, Mont.; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

Having a formal and organized communications program during the environmental analysis for a new airport site has been suggested both by the Federal Aviation Administration and the manager of the study, the consulting firm of Landrum & Brown.

Costs of the program would be funded by the FAA.

At the Airport Authority's Tuesday meeting, Landrum & Brown president Mark Perryman emphasized the point again, saying a communications specialist would be needed to manage the flow of information to the public about the progress of an environmental impact statement.

He pointed out that already the firm has interviewed 1,000 people in connection with locating the proper airport site, as well as interviewing executives at various airlines about a new site. He said in addition to SkyWest and Horizon Air, other carriers showing an interest in a new airport were contacted.

That sort of information, once congealed and prepared for public release, would need to be disseminated through various media and other channels by an experienced communications firm.

Authority member Len Harlig asked Johnson whether his work might be perceived by the public as attempting to frame information and advocate a point of view. Johnson said no, that his professional mission is to prepare information objectively and present it factually.

Harlig asked Johnson whether he'd be wiling to have his information dissemination reviewed by the board in advance, an idea that was rejected by other members of the authority and by authority attorney Barry Luboviski as impractical and wasteful. Board member Susan McBryant added that the authority doesn't have the skill to pass judgment on such work.

Luboviski also observed that once Gallatin develops a long-range plan, he would be needed to implement it.

Member Dr. Ron Fairfax agreed, saying the board "needs help, a lot of help" in keeping the public informed as the FAA and Landrum & Brown acquire data and release it to the public.

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