FARGO — The North Dakota Attorney General's Office has rendered an opinion on the question of whether the Fargo City Commission may remove Airport Authority board members and replace them with city commissioners.
The answer is spelled out in a letter from the attorney general's office to Fargo City Attorney Erik Johnson, who submitted the question for an opinion.
The Aug. 30 letter states that because Fargo already has an airport authority, the Fargo City Commission could exercise the powers of a municipal airport authority only after paying off all airport authority debts and dissolving the current airport authority.
The opinion comes at a time of increased tensions between the city and the airport authority regarding a number of issues, including which entity has authority over airport personnel, particularly airport executive director Shawn Dobberstein.
Tensions began rising in recent years after the airport authority proposed giving a raise to Dobberstein.
In June, airport authority members met with Mayor Tim Mahoney and other city officials, who presented the airport authority with a proposal that calls for making it clear, once and for all, that airport employees will be considered city employees and lays out a plan for setting the pay level for top airport officials.
Airport authority members were noncommittal regarding the city's presentation and as the meeting wrapped up, airport authority Chairman Mike Haugen told city officials the authority would "digest" the proposal.
The city had asked that the matter of a fresh agreement be resolved by early August, but that deadline was moved to Oct. 1.
Haugen said in a recent phone interview that the airport authority has been researching other possible vendors for services it now receives from the city, and he said the authority may have something to say regarding a new agreement sometime in early October.
The airport authority was established in 1969 and its relationship with the city has become increasingly more complex over time.
While both sides agree that the founding agreement signed in 1969 between the airport authority and the city remains in effect, Johnson said so much has changed operationally that a new agreement is necessary to address the complexity, especially in areas like human resources and finance.
For example, while airport authority workers are included in the city's pension plan, airport officials maintain that hiring and firing of workers is the purview of the authority, not the city.
Also, the city has increased what it charges the airport authority for services, recently boosting that charge from about $50,000 to around $100,000, prompting talk from the airport authority about going with alternative vendors for some services the city provides.
Under the proposal the city presented in June, airport workers would "remain" city employees, while the airport's executive director would answer to the airport authority, the Fargo City Commission and the city administrator. The city stressed that in order to be a part of the pension program, someone must be a city employee.
The city's proposal spells out that the hiring, firing and disciplining of airport workers would be the responsibility of the airport authority.
The city's proposal also calls for setting the compensation package for the airport executive director position in 2019 at a maximum of about $168,000, including a $900 annual vehicle allowance and the use of a city-issued cellphone.
City officials said the proposed compensation plan was based on a survey of airport executive pay around the country.
Last year, the airport authority proposed boosting Dobberstein's compensation package from the current level of about $168,000 — which includes a $9,600 annual vehicle allowance and an annual phone allowance of $2,400 — to a total compensation package of about $220,000 by 2020.
City officials stressed in June that if the airport decides to go with health insurance coverage other than what is provided by the city, it would likely mean between $48,000 and $136,000 in greater cost to the authority.
For airport workers, city officials said going with insurance other than the city's health insurance plan would likely mean $190 more each month for single coverage and $457 more a month for family coverage.
Johnson declined to speculate on whether the city commission would consider dissolving the airport authority, stating that would be up to commissioners.
He said, however, that the steps necessary to accomplish such a change may not be as daunting as they might appear.
Haugen said he isn't sure what would be accomplished if the commission chose to take such measures.
"What changes?" he said, adding: "We still have the FAA rules and guidelines, we still have all the same restrictions on money and how it is spent."
Dissolving the airport authority would would cost money and take time, Haugen said, in part because it would require transferring property titles from the airport authority to the city.
"It's a complex thing," Haugen said.