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Opposition to state ‘takeover’ of Gary airport misguided, lawmakers say

Pastor Dwight Gardner answers submitted questions during community meeting sponsored by Northwest IndianFederatiInterfaith Organizations about oppositiSenate Bill 585 Trinity United

Pastor Dwight Gardner answers submitted questions during a community meeting sponsored by the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations about opposition to Senate Bill 585 at Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary, Ind. Saturday February 2, 2013. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: March 4, 2013 6:55AM



A community group rallied residents on Saturday to oppose a state bill that would give the governor control of Gary/Chicago International Airport.

Politicians, however, insisted the group’s opposition to the bill was misguided. They said they, too, opposed this section of the bill but that the majority of the legislation could inject millions and perhaps billions of dollars into Gary’s economy.

The Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations hosted the rally at Trinity United Church of Christ in Gary to oppose Indiana Senate Bill 585, part of which would change the makeup of the board of the Gary airport.

Right now, the Gary mayor appoints four members, with Lake County, Porter County and the Indiana governor each appointing one. The proposed legislation, authored by Sen. Ed Charbonneau, R-Valparaiso, would increase the governor’s appointments to five. The governor would also select the chairman of the board, who would have veto power over any board decision.

But the bill would also create a land-based casino, a trauma center and a shipping port in Gary — plans expected to bring tens of thousands of jobs to the city.

Speakers at the rally claimed the bill would treat Gary unfairly, as other large airports in the state, such as the ones in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, do not have any board member appointed by the governor.

“Aren’t we, too, Indiana?” the Rev. Dwight Gardner said to applause. “House Bill 585 ... suggests that Northwest Indiana and particularly Gary are not full partners in statehood and will not be allowed to sit at the table when the company of growth and investment come calling.”

Gardner compared the bill to the Regional Development Authority, which he said allowed 95 percent of the jobs on the airport runway expansion project to go to non-Gary residents. Changing the airport board would just further allow the state to use Gary resources for the state’s economic gain without letting the city benefit, he said.

“Why are we being asked to surrender anything in order that our government would use our tax dollars to invest where we live?” Gardner said. “It’s a strange fruit.”

Renee Hatcher, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, pointed to the Chicago/Gary Airport Authority Compact, which she said took control of the Gary airport out of any one state’s hands, something a judge has already ruled on after Illinois tried and failed to take over the airports in Chicago from that city. She called the bill a “takeover” by the state.

The federation called on people at the meeting to tell their elected officials that they opposed the bill. However, several politicians who attended the meeting held their own meeting afterward, calling out the federation for not contacting them first about the bill and not allowing them to speak.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, Sen. Earline Rogers, D-Gary, and Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, all said they opposed any move to give power of the board to the governor but that the rest of the bill would provide a large economic boost to the region.

Rogers said the bill, which was filed in January, is still in its infancy and she is already in talks with Charbonneau to amend it.

“There will not be anything in the legislation about the governor having a majority,” she told the residents, adding that Gov. Mike Pence likely knows nothing about the bill. “... People are misinformed and not aware of where we are at in the process.”

She defended Charbonneau, saying he’s worked with Gary leaders since last year to help bring Gary’s visions to fruition.

“Ed Charbonneau is not an enemy,” Rogers said. “He is a person looking to help Gary.”

Freeman-Wilson cautioned people against using only half the information, saying she’s already sent an email to the Gary Common Council calling the proposed changes to the airport board a “deal breaker.”

Brown called on everyone at the meeting to work together, as legislators in the rest of the state don’t trust Northwest Indiana to do what’s right.

“We have to convince them that they’re wrong,” he said.



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