Area legislators left out of OLF meeting

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 3, 2008

FRANKLIN-Navy officials detailed the outlying landing field site selection process to a group of interested state legislators this week in a meeting arranged by the governor’s office.

In what is being described as &uot;an administrative error,&uot; though, the legislators involved were all from Chesapeake and Virginia Beach. Delegates and senators representing the counties where the airfield actually would be located were not invited.

Steven Mondul, deputy assistant to the governor for commonwealth preparedness, said Friday that the omission was an oversight and that his office had apologized to the legislators who were snubbed, as well as to the county administrators of the communities they represent.

&uot;They were very nice about it,&uot; he said.

In telephone interviews Thursday and Friday, though, legislators, aides, administrators and citizens expressed dismay and frustration with the situation.

&uot;It certainly is disconcerting to think that they would be having a meeting without us,&uot; Southampton County Administrator Michael Johnson said, noting that he had been called by Mondul's office on Wednesday.

U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., was even more direct, according to aides contacted on Friday.

&uot;From the congressman’s perspective, he firmly believes that every locality should be involved in all meetings&uot; dealing with the Navy’s proposed auxiliary training airfield, said spokeswoman Stephanie Nigro.

&uot;Having the communities involved is definitely a priority.&uot;

In fact, it was a Forbes aide, Jason Gray, who first noted the missing delegation to state officials, Nigro said. As Forbes’ military liaison, Gray was attending the meeting to keep up to date with the selection process.

When he arrived, he realized there were no legislators on hand to represent the Virginia counties on the Navy’s list of potential airfield hosts.

&uot;The first question he asked was why Southampton and Sussex counties weren't represented,&uot; Nigro said. &uot;He was told that they had been. But when he left (the meeting), he called and was told they had not been (invited).&uot;

Mondul said Friday that he and Adm. David Anderson had visited the missing legislators in their capitol offices the previous week and that &uot;a secretary&uot; had thought there was consequently no need to invite them to attend the meeting at the Office of Commonwealth Preparedness on Monday.

Instead, members of the Assembly’s Virginia Military Advisory Committee and state legislators from Chesapeake and Virginia Beach were on hand to represent the &uot;affected areas,&uot; he said.

Hampton Roads legislators were there, he said, because of the governor's desire &uot;to make sure we do all we can do&uot; to protect Oceana.

The leader of a group that has organized to fight the Navy's plans said Friday that neglecting to invite legislators from the areas that would be most directly affected contributes to citizens' frustration with and distrust of the process and those guiding it.

&uot;The frustrations of the citizens in the communities involved have revolved around the politics and back-room dealing,&uot; said Tony Clark, chairman of Virginians Against the Outlying Landing Field. &uot;We have asked for an open dialog, and we have been stonewalled at every turn.&uot;

Navy officials used the get-together Monday, as well as meetings the previous week, &uot;to make sure that everybody is working off the same sheet of information&uot; regarding the timelines, maps, selection criteria and other factors involved in the OLF selection process, Mondul said.

The fact that the Virginia counties on the Navy's five-site list of potential locations for the airfield were missing from Monday's meeting, he added, did not diminish the value of that meeting.

&uot;Taken along with the fact that the same information had gotten out the week before,&uot; he said, &uot;it was a very useful (meeting), anyway.&uot;

The governor's assistant admitted that there are some who might construe the &uot;administrative error&uot; as less than innocuous.

&uot;Some people were insinuating that we were trying to hide something from the locals, which was absurd,&uot; he said.

Mondul said he expects the Navy to begin to take control of the process now, as it prepares to publish a notice in the Federal Register of the pending environmental review process for the three Virginia and two North Carolina sites it has identified as possible locations for its training facility.

&uot;Our expectation is that the rhythm now will really change,&uot; he said, adding that the Navy plans meetings with local governments, civic groups and concerned individuals as the environmental impact study proceeds.

&uot;The state is in more of a facilitation (mode),&uot; he said. &uot;We'll make sure that clear information is being transmitted in both directions.&uot;