Disclosure debate: Truckee Tahoe Airport board member deems questions over campaign finance as political ploy
Months after an election that saw a pair of airport board candidates together raise more than $80,000 in campaigns for a seat at the table, the Truckee Tahoe Airport District is looking into policies on disclosure of donations and perceived conflicts of interest.
The topic was part of a heated debate last week among board members unable to agree on how to move forward.
Campaign donations were brought up at an October board meeting, ahead of last year’s elections, following two large campaign donations to board member Jim Morrison and former member John Jones from the owner of Mountain Lion Aviation, which plans to lease a new airport hangar that has not yet been built. The timing of the contributions and what fellow board members deemed a possible conflict of interest prompted discussion on the donations, and the board developing new campaign finance disclosure policies.
Morrison made clear last week he considers concerns first raised in October by board member Lisa Wallace a political ploy to attack him and Jones in order to help elect Mary Hetherington, whom Wallace endorsed in the campaign and who defeated Jones for the seat.
Of the $80,000 raised by Jones and Morrison, nearly $15,000 came in two donations from Mountain Lion Aviation owner Jim Wilkinson in August 2018, when Mountain Lion Aviation agreed on terms of a potential lease, if the new hangar is built, and the board unanimously voted to accept a term sheet with the aviation company and move ahead the bid process for the project.
“I’m mainly interested in doing something about disclosure,” said Board President Rick Stephens, who said he would endorse a disclosure policy but would not back a cap on the amount of campaign donations. According to campaign finance filings, Stephens raised $74,080 during his own 2016 campaign for the board.
“I don’t think it’s just contributions; I think it’s conflict issues,” Stephens said. “I think you need to disclose this stuff if you have a conflict, and that isn’t necessarily a contribution.”
Morrison said the Mountain Lion Aviation donations, with which Stephens and Wallace took issue, were already properly disclosed.
“Everything was done ethically; everything was done properly,” Morrison said. “I’m all about transparency. That’s why I disclosed the contributions.”
Currently, all candidates running for district’s board must file campaign contributions with the Fair Political Practices Commission if their total exceeds $2,000, which is then posted on the district’s website.
“However, that website is not easily accessible having to follow numerous links to get to the Truckee Tahoe Airport District,” said Brent Collinson, attorney for the Tahoe Truckee Airport District. “Not everyone may be aware of its existence.”
Collinson suggested staff post links on the airport website that lead directly to the airport district’s candidate campaign filings on the FPPC’s website.
According to a staff report, any limits on campaigning could be a restriction on First Amendment rights of free speech.
“With all constitutional rights there are limits that can be imposed,” said Collinson. “The most famous example is one cannot go into a crowded theater and yell fire.”
Collinson said that in order to impose limits on free speech, it is necessary to show that there’s an important governmental interest that’s being protected and that the limit is closely drawn to avoid unnecessary infringement on those rights. The staff report said the disclosure of contributions are less likely to conflict with the First Amendment.
Wallace, who first raised the issue with donations to Morrison and Jones in October, said the reason she is interested in pursuing a policy around disclosures is due to the district’s increasing involvement in land-use decisions in recent years.
“All of those land-use decisions have been controversial,” she said, adding that in coming years they will be making similar controversial decisions.
“I want all of our constituents to have full confidence in the way we’re making decisions,” Wallace said. “I do believe that disclosures around campaign contributions as well as other standards of disclosures around potential conflict will help increase the confidence in those decisions as we go forward.”
Wallace suggested the board should seek additional recommendations from the staff on the issue.
Morrison said Wallace crossed the line for political purposes when she raised concern over the donations to him and Jones, who lost his seat in November to Mary Hetherington.
“I don’t care where you guys go with this,” Morrison said. “I think the reason you’re talking about it is because you tried to make a point that I am a bad person. I think what you did was walked into a crowded theater and yelled fire.”
“I think you did it to not only to prevent John from getting elected,” he said, “but to get Mary elected.”
“I know you can’t be bought. I know John Jones can’t be bought,” Stephens said, saying Morrison still should have disclosed the donations directly to the board.
“To avoid these appearance issues in the future I think we can create some rules for ourselves,” said Hetherington. “Because of this appearance and the pain that it caused, I think it’s a net win for all of us.”
Hannah Jones is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-550-2652.