Despite establishing a community roundtable and successfully beginning a years-long environmental study, some members of the forum expressed dissatisfaction with the roundtable’s progress.
Last Friday, State Senator Tony Avella joined representatives from advocacy group Queens Quiet Skies to demand a permanent facilitator for the roundtable, which is set to meet on February 15.
According to the senator, the group has yet to approve bylaws governing the discussions. Separate groups are in a deadlock on whether there should be one roundtable for both Queens airports or if there should be two separate roundtables.
“We need a permanent facilitator, somebody who is not going to be there for just one meeting. Somebody who will be there from beginning to end,” Avella said. “Otherwise, we’re just going to have the same nonsense over and over again.”
According to Avella, the previous aviation roundtable gathering was “the craziest, most disruptive, yelling meeting I’ve ever attended on any issue.” He said the mechanism to oversee the discussions was “failing miserably.”
That’s why he's advocating for a facilitator, whose role will be to run the day-to-day operations of the roundtable, set up meetings, coordinate notices and carry out decisions made by the collective group.
Avella said he told the Port Authority, which operates both of New York’s airports, that unless they hire a facilitator, meetings won’t be efficient.
“I’m not going to another meeting until you hire a facilitator because this is pointless,” Avella said. “I’m drawing a line in the sand.”
In December, Avella said, the Port Authority told the senator they hired a facilitator to be in charge for one meeting, just to get the bylaws done. Avella responded by saying that isn’t good enough, and demanded a facilitator for the long term.
“It’s about time for the Port Authority to stop this stall tactic and playing games with some of the groups and elected officials,” Avella said, “and do what we’re entitled to have, just like every other roundtable across the country.”
Avella went further, accusing the Port Authority of not wanting a roundtable in the first place.
“They don’t want to have to listen to the community, they don’t want to report to elected officials and community boards,” he said. “That’s a disgrace. Whether they like it or not, we’re going to make them do it.”
He pledged to “raise holy hell” until they “do it the right way” and hire a facilitator.
Representatives from Queens Quiet Skies also spoke about the need for a full-time person managing the roundtable. Though QQS President Janet McEneaney couldn’t attend Friday’s press conference, two members of the organization read aloud a statement she wrote criticizing the proposed bylaws.
Phil Konigsberg, a member of Community Board 7 and the Bay Terrace Community Alliance, read the statement, which detailed the makeup and powers of a roundtable. As opposed to an advisory group, roundtables are open meetings with representatives where decisions are made and implemented, she wrote.
She referenced other aviation roundtables in cities like San Francisco that have a facilitator, paid technical staff and committees.
“We have a blueprint for a roundtable that has worked for decades in other cities, why haven’t we used it in New York?” Konigsberg read. “The Port Authority knows how it should be done, but has never been committed to giving us a roundtable that works.”
McEneaney said the proposed bylaws don’t require members in writing to carry out decisions made by the roundtable.
“If there is no way to make the stakeholders implement shared decisions, there’s no reason to waste any more time or money on this,” she wrote.
Another issue Avella and Queens Quiet Skies brought up was the question of whether to have one roundtable for all airports. The advocacy group has pushed for one collective forum, while other organizations like the Eastern Queens Alliance have previously stated they want two separate roundtables.
McEneaney expressed that the question was settled in April 2015 by a vote, but the drafters of the bylaws “ignored the will of the members” by essentially creating two roundtables “masquerading as airport committees.”
“The proposed bylaws create two straw working committees that would function as two separate roundtables,” she wrote. “Our recent noise problems are created by our shared airspace, but those problems will not be addressed under these bylaws.”
Queens Quiet Skies then called on the upcoming roundtable meeting to be canceled until a facilitator is hired.
“Are you for a working public roundtable or against it?” McEneaney wrote. “That’s the question we will be asking all of our elected officials.”
The Port Authority responded by noting that the roundtable will pass the bylaws at its February 15th meeting, but it’s not at the stage where a technically proficient facilitator is needed. However, they have not ruled out hiring a permanent facilitator, and there are ongoing discussions about it now.
In a January 18th letter to Borough President Melinda Katz, Port Authority Executive Director Patrick Foye wrote that in order to balance the differing priorities of residents living near LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, the bylaws call for a single roundtable with two distinct and separate committees for each airport.
“The draft bylaws clearly delineate between issues that impact both airports and those that only impact one airport and provide for a clear process on how each type of issue is resolved,” Foye wrote, adding that each committee chair must agree to resolve any conflict. “We believe that this system of 'checks and balances' will ensure that one airport committee does not have the ability to unilaterally decide issues that will impact the other airport committee.”
Foye added that the February 15th meeting will have a meeting facilitator with “deep roots in local aviation policy and the Queens community.” The facilitator is only tasked with adopting the draft bylaws, he said.
“Moving forward, this would not preclude the hiring of a full-time facilitator for the roundtable if the membership could come to agreement on a suitable candidate and a way to fund the position,” Foye wrote.
Barbara Brown, chair of the Eastern Queens Alliance, said that the EQA has publicly called for two separate roundtables “quite some time ago.” The current bylaws clearly spell out what can be addressed by the airport committees and which issues can be discussed together in one roundtable, she said.
“We’re hoping that we have addressed the concerns of everybody and that people will be able to vote and ratify the bylaws so we can move forward,” she said.
Brown acknowledged that their last roundtable meeting was acrimonious, but she said not all meetings are like that.
“Some elected officials were screaming at each other,” she said. “It was not a great meeting from that standpoint. You can’t bully your way through.”
But she still hopes officials like Avella, who has a seat on the roundtable, attends the next meeting.
“We would hope all people impacted by the airport come out to meetings and participate,” she said. “That’s the democratic process.”