Suffolk Closeup: Refusing to be captured

REPORTER FILE PHOTO Helicopters at the East Hampton airport.

Good for democracy.

That’s the significance of the legislation authored by State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) signed into law last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo providing that if any future East Hampton Town Board wants a Federal Aviation Administration grant running 10 years or more, it would have to be approved by the voters.

The FAA is an example of what these days is termed a “captured” government agency. Established with an obvious conflict of interest to promote and at the same time somehow regulate aviation activity, it’s thoroughly under the influence of the aviation industry and under the thumb of aviation interests.

Because East Hampton has received grants from the FAA for its town-owned airport, it’s had difficulty exercising local control over what has in the past two decades become the area’s biggest noisemaker. Helicopters shuttling well-heeled passengers between Manhattan and the Hamptons — flying loud and low — have been creating a racket all over Long Island with Shelter Island especially hard-hit.

The website “Aviation Impact Reform” — — asks the question, “What is Regulatory Capture?” The explanation: “Regulatory capture is a form of political corruption that occurs when a regulatory agency, created to act in the public interest, instead advances the commercial or special concerns of interest groups that dominate the industry or sector it is charged with regulating.

Regulatory capture is a form of government failure; it creates an opening for firms to behave in ways injurious to the public …”

The website, which says it “seeks to empower citizens who see the need for FAA reform, citizens who want an accountable FAA,”declares: “The FAA is a captured agency. Indeed, a careful study of FAA’s regulatory history suggests that this agency has nearly always been serving aviation interests first, frequently with complete indifference to the negative impacts upon the general public.”

A municipality with financial grants from the FAA is especially handcuffed from exercising local control, even if it owns the airport it’s trying to manage. The FAA grant program is for “development” of airports. The last of the FAA grants East Hampton received expired in 2014. If there are no more FAA grants, the town has a far better chance to get out from under the yoke of the FAA and control its field, to the relief of people all over Long Island.

Commented Senator LaValle about the governor signing the measure:
“I fully support East Hampton’s efforts to make decisions concerning their own airport … The new decision-making ability would enable the community of East Hampton to chart their own course.”

Said Mr. Thiele: “I am pleased the governor signed this measure which puts the decision-making power regarding FAA funds back into the hands of the community. Town Board members have terms that last only four years. Therefore, it’s important that voters also have a say on these agreements that will impact them for years to come”

Charles A. Ehren, Jr., vice chairman of the Wainscott-based organization Quiet Skies Coalition, said: “The East End … and all areas affected by noise caused by East Hampton Airport, owe a great debt of gratitude to Senator LaValle and Assemblyman Thiele for their persistence and hard work on our behalf.”

The FAA is not alone, of course, in being a “captured” government agency. Another one — which a former official from western Long Island had a big role in eliminating — was the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Witnessing the way the AEC handled whether a construction license should be granted to the Long Island Lighting Company to build the Shoreham nuclear power plant, Congressman Lester Wolff of Kensington was aghast.

The AEC hearings between 1971 and 1972 were a nuclear kangaroo court, with the AEC “judges” refusing to consider issue after issue, including the impossibility of area evacuation in the event of a major Shoreham accident. That, decades later, became a key factor in Suffolk County’s efforts to stop Shoreham from operating.

In 1974, with the late Mr. Wolff instrumental, the U.S. Congress abolished the AEC and, in its place founded the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to regulate nuclear technology and, later, a Department of Energy to get the promotional role. Shoreham was ultimately stopped, but meanwhile, $7.5 billion that LILCO spent — largely our ratepayer money — to build it was wasted, and the Shoreham debacle caused LILCO’s dissolution.

Hooray for democracy, and the power of people over “captured” government agencies.

Top file photo: Helicopters at the East Hampton airport. (Credit: Times Review Media Group)

Karl Grossman is a veteran journalist and professor and a member of the Press Club of Long Island’s Journalism Hall of Fame. His Suffolk Closeup column is syndicated in newspapers across the county.