Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on Friday tapped real estate developer and airport commission chairman Gene Richards to serve as the city's new interim aviation director.
If approved by the council, Richards would replace Bob McKewing, who has served in the role on an interim basis for the past year and a half. Weinberger said that, pending confirmation by the city council, Richards would serve for six to nine months before a permanent director is named.
As chairman of the five-member airport commission, Richards "played a leadership role in helping to turn around the airport in terms of constraining costs, in terms of putting procedures in place that ensure the financial strength of the airport," Weinberger said at a press conference held at the airport.
The mayor also called for the creation of a "strategic planning committee" charged with formulating a new financial plan for the airport and proposing changes to its governance. Weinberger made the announcement alongside city councilors Karen Paul and Paul Decelles Vince Dober, who he said he would appoint to the committee, which he said would create "a road map for success in the years ahead."
Weinberger declined to outline his vision for possible changes to the airport's governance, but he hinted that he may seek a greater role for Burlington's neighbors in running it. South Burlington, in which the airport is located, currently appoints one of five members to the commission. The mayor pegged the start of a new, national search for a permanent airport director to the outcome of the proposed committee's review.
"It is my sense that before we can attract a top candidate and before we know exactly what candidate we want for that job, that we need to go through this strategic planning process and get better clarity about what the future of the airport looks like in the years ahead and who the right individual would be to fill that position," Weinberger said.
The mayor cited Richards' business record, "excellent relations in the community" and tenure as commission chairman as his qualifications to run the airport. Like Weinberger, he is a strong supporter of basing F-35 planes at the neighboring Vermont Air National Guard base. In a March 2010 story in Seven Days, he criticized those who bought homes near the airport and then complained about the noise.
"I hear the noise the F-16 makes," he said at the time. "I think it's exciting. I think it's part of being in a lively community. If you want quiet all the time, you should move to Montgomery."
Asked about those comments Friday, Richards said he was referring to "people who just moved next to the airport or just moved next to a student dorm and are complaining about the noise."
"I believe we have an obligation here at the airport to work harder to reduce noise," he said. "I still am a great supporter in every way of the F-35. And I believe people need to make wise decisions when they purchase homes and maybe be careful not to move next to an airport if you don't like airport noise."
He said his words were "probably a little harsh when I said that, but it was how I felt at the time for those people who moved right next to the airport."