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Confusing the airport issue

Combine devious political intent with contorted legal jargon, and you begin to understand why people are squinting their eyes as they read three proposed referendum questions on the fate of St. Petersburg's Albert Whitted Airport.

Try No. 3 on for size: "Shall the previous agreements between the Federal Aviation Administration and the city, which resulted in the city receiving grants for Albert Whitted Airport in exchange for agreeing to limit Albert Whitted Airport to airport uses for periods of up to 20 years with the last agreement expiring in 2022, be ratified and approved?"

Translation: The city may have violated its own charter by agreeing to long-term airport agreements without a referendum, so voters are asked to backdate the contracts. What if they say no?

The three questions were submitted to City Council on Tuesday, and City Attorney John Wolfe said Wednesday he already is back at the drawing board. What's the point? Confusion seems exactly what council members intend. They fear that a grass-roots group, Citizens for a New Waterfront Park, will gather enough signatures to force a long-overdue showdown on the waterfront airport. So they are trying to pre-empt that referendum with one of their own, or to throw as much chaos onto the Nov. 4 ballot as possible.

For the record, the citizens group is asking a legitimate question for a community defined by its expanse of public waterfront parks: Should the city's airport, which serves only a few private pilots and loses money, be closed to expand the waterfront parkland?

That pilots would react negatively to such a proposition is not surprising, but the council is supposed to represent more than just those who own planes. Instead, the council has chosen to treat the waterfront park lovers as Public Enemy No. 1. The council is so determined to phrase the ballot questions in a manner most likely to elicit support for the airport that any fair or simple language is rejected. Council members might as well ask voters to choose between an airport and a landfill. Would that produce the approval they seek?

Petitions are being gathered because the council has flatly refused to consider any options for broader public use of the airport land. As Wolfe writes tedious referendum questions tied to FAA grants and perceived city government liability, the council only reinforces that image. Why ask voters to ratify a past FAA grant if they would rather close the airport? Why not simply ask whether they want parkland or airport? Confusion, it seems, is part of the airport's master plan.