Five candidates seek 3 seats on Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board
Special to the Sierra Sun
MEET THE CANDIDATES
Name: Ken Aronson
Occupation: Community volunteer/retired from 39-year railroad career as a locomotive engineer
Hometown: Truckee (grew up in San Jose)
Name: David Diamond
Occupation: Volunteer animal rescue pilot/Berlin guitarist/writer
Hometown: Huntington Beach
Name: Leigh Golden
Occupation: Corporate pilot/community volunteer
Name: Teresa O’Dette
Occupation: Mortgage professional
Hometown: Tahoe City
Name: Rick Stephens
Occupation: Retired business executive
The Truckee Tahoe Airport District is special for a number of reasons.
Its boundaries mirror that of the North Lake Tahoe School District. Half of it is made up of Placer County residents, and the other half in the incorporated town of Truckee.
It also has five candidates running for three seats in the Nov. 3 election.
Ken Aronson and Leigh Golden, candidates for seats on the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board, support investing in airport infrastructure with an emphasis on building a new hangar, redesigning the regional area transportation system, and expanding programs for youth aviation education.
“We are running for board together because we are both passionate about the airport,” Aronson said.
A resident of Truckee for more than three decades, Aronson was a railroad engineer for 39 years. He has been a private pilot for more than 40.
Since his retirement a dozen years ago, he has been involved with volunteer groups at the airport, primarily through the Civil Air Patrol.
“We do three missions: search-and-rescue using an airplane, the cadet program for developing youth leadership, and aerospace education,” he explained.
“Ten years ago, we started a program in the summer called the ‘Mission to Mars Space Camp,’” Aronson said. “We send children on a little trip to Mars for a week.
“It’s all about STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — a five-day program. Every day the kids come to the airport and plan a trip to Mars.”
Three summer sessions with 12 children enrolled in each are offered through the Department of Parks and Recreation as a fundraiser for the Civil Air Patrol. The program costs $550 for five days.
The Mars Space Camp sells out in minutes, Aronson said.
“We have been told many times we should do it year round,” Aronson said. “I can’t think of anything better to do on a Saturday morning in the winter than to come down to the airport to do some projects.”
But there’s no place to do them, he added.
Around 2014, a proposal was made to build a Hangar Three community center where activities and events could be scheduled year-round, Aronson said. “They never built that hangar, so we are stuck with doing a few camps in the summer. I’ve been told through the years that if you don’t like how something is done, do it yourself. So my big platform is to do something for the community, for the children, primarily the youth.”
As Aronson envisions it, Hangar Three could become the reimagined center of transportation for the region. It could help keep cars off the road. Skiers could fly in, leave their cars at the airport and take alternate transport to the slopes.
“We want ‘STEM Day Saturday’ to come to the airport and work on real life problem solving,” Aronson said. “Our society has transportation issues. Maybe the kids will come up with ways to get from the airport to the ski resorts without driving.”
Hangar Three could also be used by firefighters as a command center or as an evacuation center. It could be used by helicopters to fly in supplies. It could be a field hospital in a pandemic, he said.
“A hangar is a really big building,” Aronson said. “Kids in our space program just like being in it. There’s a park near here, but, no, they want to have lunch in the hangar.
“The children are our future,” Aronson said. “Five, 10, 15 years from now, they are going to be running things. We need to invest in our youth. Education is Number One.”
Dave Diamond has touched a lot of bases, but doesn’t see himself on a “hot seat” if elected Nov. 3 to the Truckee Tahoe Airport Board of Directors.
“I want to balance ideas and action,” Diamond said. “What’s good for the community is also good for pilots.”
The five-member board has a seesaw history of being top heavy, sometimes with pilots calling for larger, more improved facilities — or with non-pilots advocating greater, communitywide needs beyond the airfield.
With the resignation of Jim Morrison, there are currently no pilots serving on the district’s board.
“I’m a pilot — I have aviation expertise, but I am also a community-minded person,” he said. “There’s a lot I don’t know, but I refuse to see these as two sides of ‘pilot vs. community.’”
Diamond acknowledged the community’s beauty and climate as assets, but said they also demand specific solutions to global warming and the side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Is there a reason people will not be attracted to the Tahoe region?” he asked. “No matter how hot it is up here, we are day trip, car accessible for people in Reno and Sacramento.”
Diamond said his priority list includes providing airport patrons with a shuttle and offering more local workforce housing.
“The airport has worked with other agencies,” Diamond said. “We need to get the regions to solve problems together.”
Beyond housing and transit, Diamond identified a trash problem, a crowding problem and forest management as key issues he hopes to address if elected.
“You can’t get in this area when the weather is nice,” Diamond said. “How will people get out? There are no escape routes. That’s why we need fuel management.”
Air traffic has also increased greatly over the years and in recent months.
“We are seeing people not anchored to their 9-to-5 jobs,” Diamond said. “This is the stage on which we are all playing.”
A Truckee resident since 2015, he has been a member of the town’s Airport Community Advisory Team (ACAT) and supports its noise abatement policies.
“We have a fantastic airport in a fantastic region,” he said. “It needs to explain all it does for the community.”
What he hopes to change is the level of amicability and productivity among board members.
“I would like to see more accountability from the airport,” Diamond said. “The government moves at the speed of molasses.”
Leigh Golden teamed up with Ken Aronson because of their long friendship, shared hope in future generations and interest in education.
“We’re in total agreement that the future of our planet is in the hands of the children,” Golden said.
Golden first became involved in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) program by teaching attendees how to weld.
His experience welding was fortified by time spent as an airport mechanic and finessed as he created rockets that go over 800 miles per hour.
“I’m a member of the Tripoli Rocketry Association,” Golden said.
Golden said he is all about stimulating the mind, whether he is in Blackrock Desert for a rocket launch or Burning Man — he’s been 10 times.
And, yes, that fact is relevant to his candidacy, Golden said.
“The Burning Man experience has been beyond belief regarding giving back to people,” Golden said. “That’s the big lesson, and for me, giving back to the airport is naturally in line with that. I can help make safe decisions to maintain operations.”
Golden said ensuring that the airport is safe, first and foremost, will allow the board the proactive capacity to think about what else and how much the special district will spend its money on.
“It’s not inexpensive to operate an airplane, but it’s not earth shaking either,” Golden said. “It’s part of our society.”
Golden said some decisions may benefit both the community and the airport. He referenced the district’s investment in the Waddle Ranch Preserve.
“Years ago there was a big proposal to build 6,000 homes around the airport, and the airport was very instrumental in purchasing the surrounding 1,500 acres,” Golden said. “The caveat was that the airport enter into a partnership to maintain the land. The primary reason is that land prevents the start of a catastrophic wind from Glenshire because that’s where our prevailing winds are.”
Golden has operated out of the Truckee Tahoe airport since the 1970s, he said.
Since he got his pilot’s license, Golden has served as an emergency pilot, an airport mechanic and an inspector.
As a member of the Aircraft Community Action Team (ACAT), Golden said he is passionate about the airport.
Amidst the region’s recent fires and smoky skies, Golden said his appreciation for the special district has only grown.
“The airport — we gotta keep it vibrant, we gotta keep it strong,” Golden said.
Incumbent and Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board President Teresa O’Dette has no particular agenda going into November’s election, she said, but provides the region’s leadership with perspective.
“I’ve been here 52 years,” O’Dette said. “I’m known.”
O’Dette said the region she currently represents has changed significantly since she graduated from North Tahoe High School in 1986. According to O’Dette, Truckee and the surrounding area owe a large portion of its wealth to the outdoors, and the airport as an essential conduit.
“I was so broke in the ‘80s,” O’Dette said. “There was no money here. The airport has allowed that to shift and change.”
O’Dette said that the board’s decisions do more than delegate the use of $19.3 million in revenue.
“If the airport was gone, the community would lose $80 million a year, excluding real estate,” O’Dette said. “That’s something I’m interested in protecting.”
O’Dette said the airport is a significant contributor to how wealth flows through the region by facilitating spending in other realms outside of the travel industry.
“It’s not just airport dollars, it’s the recycling of money,” O’Dette said. “Someone flies in, then they buy groceries.”
O’Dette said to see an area once so inaccessible it lacked sidewalks and imposed building moratoriums become what it is today is astounding.
“It was destitute,” O’Dette said.
Now, O’Dette said, the region is changing rapidly, and needs leadership with scope.
“It’s like I tell my kids, ‘You’re down the path, all I can do is put up guardrails,’” O’Dette said. “Progress is happening.”
O’Dette’s public service began 16 years ago when she was elected onto the board of North Tahoe’s Fire Protection District for Station 52.
O’Dette said her firefighting friends asked her to run for the position, and she served two terms before moving out of King’s Beach.
According to O’Dette, a local friend who specialized in public relations approached O’Dette about running for the airport district over four years ago.
The firefighters are always underfunded, O’Dette said, so she took time to understand the airport’s budget prior to taking office.
“There’s a certain number of dollars the airport needs to function,” O’Dette said. “Then there’s a lot of extra dollars that are being generated in the past four years since I’ve been there.”
O’Dette said the airport, whose boundaries mirror the school district boundaries, plays a valuable part in identifying and answering community needs.
“You’ve got 50% of homeowners, landowners, on the Placer side,” O’Dette said. “What does the community need if we have a couple million to invest?”
O’Dette said $4.6 million of the airport’s budget comes from Placer County, and a significantly lesser portion comes from Truckee.
“But Truckee bears the lion’s share of the noise and annoyance,” she said. “It all pans out in the end.”
According to O’Dette, the board was concerned about how the budget would pan out amidst the pandemic and its economic fallout.
“We had four applicants for grants early this year,” O’Dette said. “We put them all on hold to see what was going to shake out with COVID.”
For incumbent Rick Stephens, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District Board’s priority ought to be community. Stephens is not a pilot, but he is an avid community member concerned with avian safety and community noise complaints.
Stephens said his 2016 platform was oriented around avian safety, and he feels proud of what the airport has accomplished so far in terms of its relatively new air traffic control tower, originally intended for seasonal use when it was built in 2017.
“Before, this was entirely uncontrolled airspace,” Stephens said. “We’ve done a very good job on it, but you’ve got to constantly improve because vigilance is very important.”
Stephens said safety and noise issues are more related than one would think.
According to Stephens, the tower — a $500,000 project of trucking containers welded together — helps coordinate pilots’ arrivals and departures, reduce risk and civilians’ annoyance.
“Right now, they take off of Runway 29 and if they turn too soon, they just hammer the residence underneath their flight path,” Stephens said.
Stephens said most of the noise complaints take place north and west of the airport.
Stephens said his real passion lies beyond avian activity, and he wants the district to spend its $7 million in property tax revenue on the community beyond the runway.
“The first thing the airport did after I was elected was commit to $50,000 a year for the Mountain Housing Council, run by the Tahoe Community Foundation,” Stephens said.
Stephens said part of his bid for reelection is to see the projects he helped promote reach their conclusion.
A developer in 2017 made two affordable units and leased them in under 15 minutes, Stephens said. According to Stephens, the board committed $800,000 to the development of similar units but are waiting on permission from the town.
In addition to improving housing options for locals, Stephens said he hopes to improve the route and schedule of the Tahoe Area Regional Transit.
With TART’s limited schedule, Stephens said the board invested $93,000 for free night transit service, so workers can get home after normal work hours, and another $40,000 for shuttle services on major holidays like the Fourth of July.
Stephens said he is proud of the community sponsorships and partnerships.
In 2016, Stephens said the district awarded $43,000 worth of grants between $500 and $3,000.
“This year we’re trying to do $70,000,” Stephens said. “I suggested we do $100,000 because it helps local groups at little cost to the airport.”
Stephens said the partnerships do a lot to improve accessibility to the outdoors, including trail maintenance.
“Trails are a permitted expenditure for airports,” said Stephens, who is also a member of the Placer County Citizens Advisory Committee.
Stephens said his bid for reelection is about continuing to do good in the community.
“My tagline is ‘Because Community Matters,’” Stephens said.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union, a sister publication of the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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