Campaign concerns: Truckee Airport directors question large donations to fellow directors (DOCS) | SierraSun.com

Campaign concerns: Truckee Airport directors question large donations to fellow directors (DOCS)

Hannah Jones
hjones@sierrasun.com

Two airport directors have taken issue with campaign contributions made to a pair of fellow directors seeking re-election, expressing concern over the amount of money donated and the appearance of a conflict of interest with votes they've cast involving the donor.

Campaign filings show incumbent directors John Jones and James Morrison have raised more than $80,000 in their effort to retain their seats on the airport board.

Director Lisa Wallace said she was concerned with the nature of nearly $15,000 in campaign contributions to Jones and Morrison from the owner of Mountain Lion Aviation, a company that plans to lease a proposed hangar at the airport.

Mountain Lion Aviation confirmed with the airport board during an Aug. 15 meeting that it agreed on terms of a potential lease, if the new hangar is built.

“These last minute, untrue, false attacks are sadly common in the political environment today. I just never thought they would be present in our hometown.”

— Jim Wilkinson, owner Mountain Lion Aviation

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Three days later, according to Placer County campaign filings, Mountain Lion owner Jim Wilkinson made a $7,300 donation to the campaign committee for Jones and Morrison, a pair of pilots who are running together for re-election.

On Aug. 22, directors unanimously voted to accept a term sheet with the aviation company and move ahead the bid process for the project. Smith noted, however, the board made no commitment to build the hangar with that vote.

Five days later, Wilkinson made a second $7,300 donation to the Jones and Morrison campaign.

Board counsel Brent Collison said both donations were legal contributions, a determination acknowledged by Wallace, who requested the discussion as an additional agenda item and requested the board look into developing a policy on disclosures among its members.

"The issue is that I think we try to be a model for our community about how we work and how we make decisions … and how we try to be transparent about how those decisions are made," Wallace said at an Oct. 24 meeting. "That gives us the appearance, now that this information has come to light, that the decisions may have been made for the financial benefit of others."

Board President Rick Stephens said at that meeting although Collison confirmed the contributions were legal, the amount was largest he's aware of in a campaign for an airport board seat.

"The $14,600 is the biggest donation I've seen," Stephens said. "And it has the appearance of conflict."

"If there is an appearance of impropriety, I really apologize," Jones said at the meeting. "But we have no obligation, and this board has no policy. And if you want to use this as a vehicle to create a policy, we could do that. But everything we have is above board."

'DISINGENUOUS,' 'LAST-MINUTE' POLITICS

Wallace has publicly endorsed Mary Hetherington, who is running against Morrison and Jones — as well as Joe Lorenz and Peter van Peborgh — for one of two open seats, and said due to that endorsement it was difficult for her to discuss the issue at the board meeting.

Jones and board member Teresa O'Dette said they saw no conflict with campaign contribution and noted the vote had been unanimous on approval of the terms sheet, for which Wilkinson said the negotiations had been ongoing for more than a year.

"Regardless of whether there was an agreement or not, there is no requirement for us to disclose anything," Jones said. "If I felt there was a conflict of interest I would have recused myself.

"I think this is really disingenuous by Lisa to bring something up before it was fully vetted by the airport and by the board."

"I think it's totally appropriate to bring up," said Morrison."I don't think there's any part of raising money for a campaign that is inappropriate."

Wilkinson, who has also launched communications company TrailRunner International in Truckee, said there was nothing inappropriate about the campaign donations. A former member of the George W. Bush White House, he said he's no newcomer to politics and has made many donations to campaigns, including $2,700 each in this election cycle to Democratic congressional candidate Jessica Morse and Republican Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan.

According to Wilkinson, as word spread of Wallace and Stephens raising issue with his donations to Jones and Morrison, community members began to attack him and his family on social media. Wilkinson said he was "deeply disturbed" by the attacks on his family calling them "slanderous, false and fraudulent." He said Wallace unfairly questioned his integrity by suggesting any conflict with the campaign contribution.

"These last minute, untrue, false attacks are sadly common in the political environment today," Wilkinson said. "I just never thought they would be present in our hometown."

"There are residents contacting me, suggesting my wife and I leave town and that they don't want my children even going to school here," he said. "All I can say is I hope Lisa and Rick are proud of themselves."

HISTORY OF HANGAR 2

In January 2017, Hangar 2 collapsed under pressure from snow accumulation by heavy storms. At that time Mountain Lion Aviation had already been operating out of the Truckee Airport. Shortly before the collapse, Mountain Lion had won a competitive bid process to move into the existing hangar, according to Wilkinson.

That May, Smith said, board members sent out a Request For Proposal for candidates to lease a newly constructed hangar. Mountain Lion Aviation was the only company that sent back an official response.

Smith said leasing the hangar to the company would likely offer the most benefit to the airport, as the company could provide Cirrus aircraft, the most popular in the industry, as well as training in the aircraft for those who need it.

"One of the things we look at with our facilities is what are the businesses that offer services that everyone can use?" said Smith.

According to the terms sheet, the 11,316-square-foot building is estimated to cost between $7.5 and $8 million. The airport would cover the entire cost of the building while Mountain Lion Aviation would be responsible for any improvements needed on the building and pay $10,184 in monthly rent.

Jones said Hangar 2 was removed from the airport's 2019 budget because the details and timing of the project are still unclear.

CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS

Following the discussion on Wilkinson's donations, some have wondered why such large amounts of money are being raised for a seat on Truckee's airport district board.

There are no campaign contributions filed for the current election cycle by Hetherington, Lorenz or Van Peborgh, the three other candidates for the airport board. All three signed a document stating they would not surpass $2,000 in contributions for the current calendar year. Documents show in previous campaigns Hetherington reported raising about $7,000 in 2012 and $5,000 in 2008 during runs for the airport board.

Morrison and Jones have raised $81,600 this year, according to campaign documents. Their largest reported expenditures were two payments totaling $49,000 — $24,645 in September and $24,355 in October — to East River Public Relations for campaign consulting.

While Stephens said Wilkinson's individual donations were the largest he'd seen, the total amount raised by Jones and Morrison is not unprecedented. Jones said when he campaigned with Katie Morrison in 2010, the two raised around $64,000.

And during the 2016 election cycle for the Truckee Tahoe Airport Board of Directors, Stephens himself raised a total of $74,080, with the largest expenditures being $25,386.25 to Office Boss for campaign mailers, $24,404 to Vaca Consulting and $5,600 to JVP Communications for public relations consulting.

"We are the only two pilots on a five-person board of an airport," said Jones, noting a majority of his campaign's donations this year came from other pilots. "The aviation community has funded us because they think it's appropriate to have candidates with an aviation background."

Other independent contributions included $5,000 donations from Erik Swan of Truckee Ventures, Will Griffith of ICONIQ Capital and Jamie McJunkin of Madrone Capital.

However, Jones and Morrison said they didn't expect to raise as much money as they did in their campaign for the airport board.

"We thought it would be between $40,000 and $50,000," Jones said. "We were surprised by the generosity of our supporters."

Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at hjones@sierrasun.com or 530-550-2652.

(UPDATE: This story has been updated to correct an error. The story should have stated Alaska Senator Dan Sullivan is a Republican. The Sierra Sun regrets the error).

Jones-Morrison 10.20.18 by on Scribd

Jones-Morrison – 9.26.18 by on Scribd

Hetherington – 10.23.18 by on Scribd

Lorenz – 7.31.18 by on Scribd

VanPeborgh – 9.9.18 by on Scribd

Stephens – 1.9.17 by on Scribd

WATCH THE DISCUSSION

Click here to watch the discussion of campaign finance disclosures by directors at the Oct. 24 meeting of the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board of Directors. (Click on “Added Agenda Item,” for the 11-minute talk).