Kalispell voters, especially those most directly affected, delivered a rather loud message to the city council last week, rejecting the proposed upgrades at the municipal airport by more than 350 votes.
The hotly contested ballot referendum passed 1,886 to 1,535 in the Nov. 5 municipal election, with the neighborhoods closest to the airport swinging the vote. Between the city’s two southern ward districts, 972 voters were opposed to the upgrades compared to 602 in favor.
Lingering in the aftermath is the sizable question: now what?
“Basically it’s a whole new chapter. Where we go from here is unknown,” Kalispell Airport Manager Fred Leistiko said.
Mayor Tammi Fisher, who cheered the voters’ decision to rebuff the planned upgrades, said the city is obligated to maintain the airport at its current status because of ongoing lease agreements, and that the council should address several lingering issues.
A list of safety upgrades that were proposed years ago could be implemented using tax increment finance funds, Fisher said. She also expressed interest in a potential city ordinance limiting hours of operation for aircraft, as well as privatizing management at the site.
“We have issues that all of us need to address out at the airport,” she said. “That property will remain an airport for at least another 20 years. The voters asked for local control, and the council needs to move forward toward what that may look like. We’re not leaving the airport in a lurch.”
Leistiko said he is still moving forward with a lawsuit against Phil Guiffrida III. Leistiko is claiming the city councilor libeled him during the bitter lead-up to Election Day, alleging that Guiffrida made false and defamatory statements about the airport manager as a private citizen. Leistiko’s wife, Connie, filed the complaint in Flathead District Court last week, seeking an unspecified amount.
The issue surrounds email messages that Guiffrida sent to city staff, as well as statements made in public, that question Leistiko’s honesty when reporting the number of airplanes taking off and landing at the municipal airport.
Guiffrida has continued to stand his ground, defending his actions and describing the lawsuit as a “bullying tactic to make me stop campaigning” against the airport upgrades. Guiffrida filed paperwork with the city in the event the civil case moves forward.
“I have the right to have my voice out there campaigning for my citizens who I represent,” Guiffrida said. “I had a job to do. My citizens expected me to stand up for them. I’m not worried about (the lawsuit). It will play out the way it is designed to play out.”
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