PR citizens vote to hand over airport

Susan Thompson
South Peace News

Peace River residents have overwhelmingly voted to have a non-profit organization take over the Peace River Regional Airport.

At the same time, Alberta Health Services has made a separate decision not to consolidate air ambulance services in the north.

The Town of Peace River and its municipal partners have recently been reviewing all of their options for airport management. The Town issued a request for proposals on Sept. 5 and received multiple expressions of interest.

A town-wide referendum was meant to gather feedback before a final decision is made on the RFP. The RFP stipulates air ambulance and forestry services must continue no matter who operates the airport. The referendum and exit poll data will help guide the final RFP decision.

Of all the ballots cast in a non-binding referendum in Peace River on Feb. 5, 133 voted in favour of turning over ownership and operation of the airport to a non-profit organization. Thirty were against with 15 ballots spoiled. Not counting spoiled ballots, 81.6 per cent voted in favour. Peace River’s population is 6,800 residents including an estimated 5,200 voters making voter turnout 3.42 per cent.

Peace River Mayor Tom Tarpey says he is relatively pleased with the turnout.

“I say I was pleased by the turnout because the last time we had a local out-of-ordinary vote was in 2008 for the byelection of a council seat in … and the total votes cast in that election was 408 votes,” Tarpey says.

“In my mind, the numbers are comparable given that this was a specific question dealing with our regional airport which does not directly touch on the lives of the majority of residents lives … whereas a councillor will vote many times on many issues which can directly impact them.”

Tarpey’s take on the result was heard loud and clear.

“My takeaway on the loud ‘Yes’ from the referendum is that it was a repudiation of Facebook politics – particularly the tactic of unelected individuals creating a faux organization under the subterfuge of representing a large or significant demographic, and then dispense mendacious information all with the intent of manipulating the democratic process for their own self-interest or that of their friends.”

The Peace Region Development Committee led by Bob Blayone has criticized the Town’s handling of the airport. The committee has advocated for ending the RFP process and asked the local municipalities to start a Part 9 corporation to run the airport instead.

The Town of Peace River and its municipal neighbours have twice rebuffed the committee’s requests for meetings to start that process, saying each time they wanted to continue the RFP process instead.

Blayone says he spoiled his referendum ballot.

Councillor Byron Schamehorn posted several lengthy informational posts on the airport RFP before the referendum vote in an attempt to help answer questions from local residents.

“Perhaps when things appear to be very significant topics on social media, it may not necessarily be the case,” Schamehorn says.

“There is a big difference between reacting or commenting on line, than physically coming out and providing feedback, I suppose,” he adds.

“Does it mean everyone is happy with what we’re doing? That’s a nice thought, but a pretty self-serving conclusion that I wouldn’t personally count on. Perhaps people didn’t feel informed enough to have an opinion, which is possible. It’s different with an issue such as smoking in businesses [the topic of a previous plebiscite], because almost everyone would have a feeling on that one-way or the other, but an airport is a complicated situation.”

Schamehorn says he’s sure that either way, those with strong opinions did come out and many also answered the exit poll.

“The good news is that the Town and now, from what I understand, the province are both committed to seeing our air ambulance service continue,” Schamehorn says.

“So as long as we’ve made sure that the important issues are taken care of, we can concentrate on looking after the smaller details to make the situation as good as it can be.”

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