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OUR OPINION: Cleaning up the airport mess

The controversy surrounding a Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport commissioner’s conflict of interest has dragged on far too long. It has also taken on twists and turns which don’t reflect very well on the Brainerd City Council, the body that appointed Doug Kuepers to the airport panel.

City Attorney Tom Fitzpatrick ruled last week a conflict of interest is in place regarding Kuepers’ involvement as a subcontractor on an airport construction project. Fitzpatrick, in his opinion, outlined ways in which the conflict could be rectified through actions by the commission and the commissioner.

This entire mess could have been avoided had Kuepers and the airport commission been more sensitive to the appearance of conflict of interest. Although their intentions may have been to do the right thing they failed to take proper precautions in a sensitive matter.

The public must be confident its elected and appointed officials are acting in the best interests of the public and not in their own interests. When there’s  a doubt about a conflict of interest government officials and bodies must error on the side of caution.

This newspaper editorialized earlier that the airport commission, and all units of government, should adopt formal conflict of interest policies so well-meaning officials don’t stray across a line of propriety because of vague or uncertain guidelines.

The Brainerd City Council grappled with this issue with a number of unsuccessful motions at its last meeting and failed to come up with any resolution of the matter. With an undercurrent of conflict relating to whether Kuepers should have been reappointed, council members appear to have dug in their heels on this issue.

Council member Bob Olson, who earlier questioned safety practices at the Brainerd airport on the basis of an anonymous letter, ventured into the field of law at Monday’s meeting. He issued a memo concluding that Kuepers was guilty of a gross misdemeanor; that airport commission members who voted for the SEH contract may be guilty of the same crime. We’ll wait for a court of law to make a such a determination, if it comes before a court.

When the city attorney’s ruling wasn’t to Olson’s liking he accused Fitzpatrick of protecting public officials when they failed to follow state statutes. The attorney stood behind his opinion, stating he sought the correct legal answer after being asked to do so by the council.

It’s now time for the airport commission to clean up the mess it made. Let’s hope it can move expeditiously and professionally.