Ousted Chicago Executive Airport board members say they're victims of a power play
As Wheeling residents learned last month of a recall effort targeting Village President Pat Horcher, another political feud already had been brewing in the community.
Horcher and Prospect Heights Mayor Nick Helmer each asked members of the Chicago Executive Airport board to step down recently, sparking allegations the two are trying to seize control of the panel.
Their requests came at a time when the airport, which is co-owned by the two towns, is taking a serious look at its future -- including whether to expand its runway, buy new properties and build a U.S. Customs facility.
Former directors Betty Cloud and David Kolssak, who resigned at the elected officials' request in June and September, respectively, both consider their removal a power play by the elected leaders.
"I think it's about control," Kolssak said. "The communities are so politicized that they don't let the airport board run."
Kolssak is leading the recall effort in Wheeling, though he says removing Horcher from office halfway through his term is about other issues, namely ongoing scrutiny about whether the village president has paid his fair share of property taxes.
For Horcher, asking Kolssak to step down was about keeping progress steady at the airport, rather than aggressive expansion that might push out some of the smaller operators.
"I didn't think he was headed in a direction that I liked with the airport," Horcher said.
Cloud said Helmer asked her to resign in June without stating a reason, leaving her to speculate.
"I have a gut feeling that it is a power play," Cloud said. "I believe that the mayor is trying to control the board at the airport."
Helmer did not return a phone call for comment about this report.
Cloud was replaced by Scott Saewert, the former Wheeling Township highway commissioner. Voters eliminated Saewert's former position in 2016.
Horcher has not yet nominated a replacement for Kolssak.
If it is a power play, what are the mayor and village president trying to control?
Runway expansion is one possibility sure to draw attention from residents. Kolssak supports runway expansion and Cloud seems open to the idea, while Helmer and Horcher have stated opposition to it.
Runway expansion is one part of master plan update under way at the airport, among a list of other issues. Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, the consultants hired to oversee the process, are expected to present several expansion options when the update is released next year. Likely options will include keeping the runway the same, expanding it or building a new one, airport officials said.
"It's got to be a balance of what the operators want and what the community will tolerate," said Rob Mark, a spokesman for the airport.
The issue has been a contentious one for years. It would require displacing Wheeling and Prospect Heights residents, because the 5,000-foot runway and airport property are landlocked.
According to a study released last year, the ideal runway would be about 6,200 feet long. That would accommodate planes that need to load up on more fuel for longer trips. More fuel sales equal more revenue for the airport and both communities.
Kolssak contends runway expansion is about much more than simply making more money.
"We need a longer runway because, frankly, the airport won't survive in 20 years if we don't have a longer runway," he said.
Cloud said Chicago Executive is not keeping up with other regional airports, but she stopped short of saying she would have voted for runway expansion.
"In business you can't stay stagnant because if you do, you're shooting yourself in the foot," Cloud said. "That doesn't mean that was the only way I was going to vote."
Court Harris, the chairman of the airport's board of directors, said he had no role in Cloud's or Kolssak's leaving the board. Those are decisions made by the mayor and village president, he said.
Harris said the airport board has been cooperative since he became chairman last year, pointing out that only five resolutions passed with less than a unanimous vote. "The board's priority is always to work together -- no matter who sits on the board of directors -- on ideas and solutions that serve our communities to the fullest extent possible," Harris said in an email. "This requires compromise and productive relationships, and it's my belief we've done that."