Brent Batten: Airport staff right to question Georgia Hiller's authority

Question authority, please


— * * * After deadline Wednesday, Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller did get back with answers to my questions about her being in a restricted area of the Immokalee Airport earlier this month and her subsequent explanation, “I hope nobody questions me being on county property.” I wondered if she felt she should be able to be at a county water plant unannounced and unescorted, as she was at the airport. She wrote: “It all depends on using logic - which part of the plant you are talking about; going inside the water plant, for example, would be totally different than walking on the grounds. Going inside the plant doesn’t compare to the Immokolee airport visit.” I have to disagree with her. I don’t see the difference between being in a restricted area of the airport and a restricted area of the water plant. Public safety could be at risk in both cases with untrained, unescorted people present. To my second question, “Shouldn’t staff question people who are unknown to them on premises where public safety could be at stake?” Hiller responded, “Absolutely.” At least on that point we agree. Original column: I disagree with Commissioner Georgia Hiller.

I hope somebody does question her being on county property.

Trying to explain away an awkward Oct. 3 encounter with Immokalee Airport staff members and Collier County sheriff's deputies, Hiller issued the following statement to a reporter from NBC-2. "It is my duty as a commissioner to investigate issues in the county. I hope nobody questions me being on county property."

The first part of the statement is undeniably true. As for the second part, being a county commissioner does not give one the right to wander through restricted areas unannounced and unescorted, as Hiller and commission candidate Tim Nance were doing at the airport.

According to Collier County Airport Executive Director Chris Curry, Hiller and Nance, who was driving his vehicle, were accompanied by Stephen Fletcher, a longtime tenant of the airport who has a crop dusting business.

Fletcher had standing permission to be on the airport grounds to access his business and he could bring visitors to that area. "He can take anybody else there under his escort but he has to be responsible for everything they do," Curry said.

There are other areas of the airport, namely the runways and taxiways, where no one except airport staff is supposed to be, Curry added. The presence of Nance's SUV in that restricted area is what caught the staff's attention and sent them scurrying, trying to flag down the unfamiliar vehicle to see who was inside. In the process, the SUV drove an estimated 45 mph, well over the airport's 15 mph speed limit, and crossed runways without stopping, as is the required procedure, according to sworn statements from airport workers to sheriff's deputies. The deputies were called after Nance did not stop for the workers.

Curry said there were two planes in "the pattern" around Immokalee Airport at the time of the incident, possibly practicing touch-and-go landings.

Curry is trying to attract more business to the underutilized Immokalee Airport. In addition to the obvious safety hazard, having vehicles running willy-nilly across the grounds hampers that effort. "In order to get better traffic, more people, you want to be known as running a professional airport," he said.

There are any number of issues at the Immokalee Airport that should be of interest to a commissioner or commission candidate. The county's ongoing legal battle with an adjacent trailer park owner, economic development on the airport grounds and rent rates charged to tenants are just a few that have come up in recent months.

Curry said if Hiller wanted to look around, all she had to do was call and he would have arranged a tour.

More troubling than the fact that she didn't is the attitude conveyed in her statement that her authority to go where she wants, when she wants, is not to be questioned.

What if Hiller wants to investigate issues at a county water treatment plant?

Can she just show up, walk around without checking in?

If she's spotted near dangerous equipment or chemicals should county staff not try to flag her down, ask what she's doing?

Hiller did not respond to those questions posed to her via email.

Georgia Hiller isn't going to poison the water supply or sabotage the airport, but there have to be procedures in place to limit access to areas where public safety could be compromised.

One of those procedures had damned well better be to question the presence of anyone, county commissioner or not, in restricted areas unbeknownst to staff.

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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