Saturday, November 18, 2017
News Roundup

Hernando Commissioner Russell takes heat for actions over rejection of drone testing

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BROOKSVILLE — Tuesday morning's Hernando County Commission meeting was packed with eager participants.

They wanted to tell commissioners what they thought of unmanned drone testing at Brooksville-Tampa Bay Regional Airport, and they were heard. But not everyone in the room could say as much.

Since then, the heat for the outcome of the discussion — which halted Hernando's shot as a drone testing site — has fallen squarely on the shoulders of commission Chairman Dave Russell.

Critics say that Russell, a pilot who adamantly opposes drone testing at the airport, used his position as chairman to quash the discussion, which could have answered the questions of fellow commissioners.

Without those answers, commissioners didn't act on a resolution that would have kept Hernando County in the running to apply for the drone testing, which some considered a chance to snag an emerging piece of the aerospace industry, along with high-tech jobs.

Russell said he didn't sense there was interest among commissioners to move forward with the testing program.

His actions riled several people, among them the chief proponent for making the pitch for drone testing, longtime Russell supporter and influential Realtor Gary Schraut, chairman of the Hernando County Aviation Authority.

Schraut and Russell had stood shoulder to shoulder to fight for one controversial improvement after another at the airport.

They supported construction of the control tower, the renaming of the facility and infrastructure grants for business growth.

Rebranding is about to begin, and all of the efforts were designed to raise the profile of the airport and its affiliated industrial parks, with the goal of attracting new industry and badly needed jobs.

Schraut said that offering the airport as one of six sites that the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking for drone testing might have opened the door for the kind of high-tech, high-paying jobs the county has dreamed of.

"Everything we did was to get us to this day, and then we just dropped it,'' he said.

A rare opportunity had been lost.

• • •

As chairman, Russell has the power to add issues to the commission agenda. Even though the Aviation Authority sought to place a needed resolution on the agenda regarding drone testing and an application deadline loomed, Russell did not add the item.

At the start of Tuesday's meeting, Commissioner Diane Rowden, the commission liaison to the airport, attempted to add the resolution.

More than a dozen residents spoke on the issue. Several voiced concern about the drones invading their privacy, running up the cost of government and creating safety hazards.

Others, including local business people Anna Liisa Covell, Buddy Selph, Ana Trinque and Dennis Wilfong, urged commissioners to support drone testing because it was going to lead to job growth.

Schraut said the Aviation Authority had voted unanimously to pursue the drone testing program. He explained that the commission could pull the plug at any time, but he also said the program could put Hernando County "at the cutting edge'' of new technology.

Soon after his allotted time had run out, Russell urged him to wrap up. Unaccustomed to being told to stop talking, Schraut continued to speak until it was clear Russell might gavel him to his seat.

Rowden fared no better when she asked to bring Michael McHugh, the county's business development manager, to the microphone to answer questions.

Russell said no.

"We're in board debate,'' he said, noting that the commission couldn't approve the resolution because it wasn't on the agenda.

County Attorney Garth Coller said a majority of the commission could decide to take up the issue, but would have to ratify the resolution at a subsequent meeting to be safe.

Commissioner Wayne Dukes said he had seen plane crashes and that he suspected drones would crash, too. People's distrust of government was another reason he said he wouldn't support drone testing.

Commissioner Nick Nicholson didn't want to discuss drones.

Commissioner Jim Adkins said he needed more information.

Russell talked about how personally he took the issue of safety and described a scenario where drones might fly over highly populated areas. He voiced concern that there are no effective technologies to avoid drone collisions.

The discussion ended, and with it Hernando's bid to become a testing site.

•••

While Russell heard congratulations from those who opposed drones, critics also popped up in the days that followed.

Rowden and Schraut both complained about the manner in which Russell had quashed discussion, and so did others.

"As a chairman, you have to be impartial. You let all the sides speak on the public record,'' said Robert Widmar, a member of the county's Planning and Zoning Commission.

He said he was surprised by Russell's behavior.

"That is very uncharacteristic of him. I've always thought of him as the consummate professional,'' Widmar said.

He also noted that other commissioners "hadn't done their homework.''

Covell, a former planning commission member, was at the meeting and said she thought that by cutting off Schraut and Rowden and not allowing staff input, Russell handled the issue poorly.

"It was rude and inconsiderate,'' she said.

She said Russell "was behaving like it is his own personal airport and no one was going to intrude. … He didn't take the time to listen to any of it.''

Covell said the commission missed the big picture.

"This was the major way of putting the new name of the airport on the map,'' she said. "They could have said this is where new and improved could be found, and they just turned it down.''

• • •

Rowden said she did not appreciate Russell's heavy-handed handling of the issue or his decision to keep other commissioners from getting their questions answered.

Without an item on the agenda and with no input from McHugh, there was no chance for commissioners to gather information. "There was no informed decision,'' she said.

Nicholson said he needed more information in order to discuss the issue. Dukes stood by his opposition to the program and said he had no problem with Russell's handling of the meeting.

Russell maintains that, prior to the meeting, no commissioner asked for the drone issue to be on the agenda. Even though he and Schraut often are on the same side of an issue, that wasn't going to happen this time, he said.

"I'm just as passionate as he is'' on the drone issue, he said.

While Russell doesn't oppose drone technology and would be in favor of a ground-based testing program, he said he could not support a program that would have drones flying in the same airspace as airplanes.

He also said he thought the other commissioners had been briefed on the drone program before Tuesday's meeting.

Schraut said he has too much respect for Russell to blast him, but believes Russell was wrong.

Schraut said he blamed himself. He should have lobbied commissioners like he usually does before meetings, he said, but didn't in this case out of respect for Russell. He thought the issue was compelling enough — and that he and the staff would be able to make their case — that it wasn't necessary.

He said he will not make that mistake again.

"This could have been a great opportunity,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1434.

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