A businessman nominated for a seat on the Spokane Airport Board has withdrawn after questions arose over his $1,800 contribution to Mayor David Condon’s 2015 re-election campaign just a day before applying for the post.
Hoyt “Larry” Larison, former CEO of Columbia Paints and Coatings, had been selected for the position by Condon over City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, who has served on the airport board as the council’s representative for three years and had asked to stay on when she’s forced from office by term limits this month. Larison also has contributed to Condon-backed political action committees.
But the mayor’s office said Thursday night that Larison has withdrawn from further consideration.
The appointment, which requires City Council confirmation, was under scrutiny by some council members after The Spokesman-Review began inquiring about Larison’s political donations, particularly the Sept. 19 contribution to the Condon campaign, a day before his application was turned in for the unpaid Airport Board seat.
Earlier, the mayor and Larison both said the timing of the contribution was coincidental, and Condon added that it had no bearing on his decision.
In a prepared statement Thursday night, Condon continued to defend the selection but announced that Larison had withdrawn.
“Mr. Larison was recommended by the board chair and (is) eminently qualified to provide the insight, perspective and leadership necessary to guide an important regional asset,” Condon said. “I will continue the search to find a qualified candidate with the background that helps the board best position the Spokane Airport for long-term growth and success.”
Larison also is a major contributor to political causes backed by Condon. Earlier this year, for example, he gave $10,000 to an Association of Builders and Contractors group that gave most of its money to a Condon-backed political action committee that supported Republican-leaning City Council candidates, according to state campaign finance records. Last year, he gave $5,000 to another group, the Eastern Washington Political Action Committee, which is overseen by Condon’s campaign manager.
A confirmation vote on the airport board appointment could have been scheduled for as early as next week, but the nomination appeared to be in jeopardy.
In addition to concerns over the timing of the political contributions, council members questioned why Larison – who lives outside city limits in Wandermere – was given preference for a seat that’s intended to represent the city’s interests on the airport board.
Condon had said earlier that he wasn’t troubled by the residency issue and cited Larison’s extensive business experience in choosing him for the post.
Larison was CEO of Columbia Paints and Coatings from 1976 until 2007, when the company was bought by Sherwin-Williams. At the time of the sale, the company, which was headquartered within city limits, employed about 350. He is a former board member of the National Federation of Independent Business and former member of a regional Federal Reserve Bank board. He also sits on the board of Mobius Spokane, the downtown children’s museum and science center.
“We really were looking at the skill set,” Condon said, adding that it’s difficult to find qualified people who live within the city who are willing to serve on the board, because it’s extremely time consuming.
“That is a very involved board that has a lot of commitments,” Condon said.
Larison had said that he has implemented strategic plans at businesses and nonprofit organizations and believes a more sophisticated strategic plan is needed at the airport.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said Thursday night that he thought the withdrawal was a wise move given the dwindling council support.
Earlier, Stuckart expressed concern over the appearance that political contributions could sway city appointments.
“I don’t want Spokane to become Washington, D.C.,” Stuckart said. “This is a working board that has a lot of responsibilities regionally, and I don’t think this should be a political monetary appointment. I’m not saying necessarily it is, but the appearance is disturbing to me enough that it puts up all sorts of red flags.”
McLaughlin said her opinion on Condon’s choice is “tainted” because she applied for the position, but she was prepared to oppose Larison’s appointment rather than abstaining from the vote.
She said Thursday night, after being informed of Larison’s withdrawal, that she hopes Condon will still consider her for the position.
McLaughlin, who co-owns a small construction company with her husband, was visibly shocked when told by a reporter this week that just before applying Larison made an $1,800 contribution to Condon’s campaign, which is the maximum allowable amount under state law that individuals can give directly to a candidate.
McLaughlin also is a contributor to Condon’s re-election. Records show she’s given his campaign $40.
Spokane International Airport and Felts Field, which spend about $60 million a year, are owned jointly by the city and Spokane County and overseen by the Spokane Airport Board. The seven-member board consists of a City Council member, a county commissioner, two members picked by county commissioners, two picked by the mayor and one picked jointly. Board members are uncompensated.
Most city board positions are given to city residents, but there are exceptions. Kris Mikkelsen, the retired CEO of Inland Power and Light, holds the other city seat on the Airport Board even though she lives outside city limits.
Councilman Mike Allen, a Condon ally on the City Council, said he too was likely to oppose Larison’s nomination. City appointments to the board should live within the city, Allen said.
“It’s nothing against the nominee,” Allen said. “I’m just being consistent.”
Councilman Jon Snyder said it is highly unlikely that there aren’t qualified business owners with finance backgrounds who live in the city who would like to serve on the board. Snyder added that he believes McLaughlin would have been a good choice for the open seat because she has experience with airport business, lives in the city, understands city and regional needs and adds diversity to a board traditionally dominated by men.
Airport Board member Skip Davis, a former interim director of the airport, was one of McLaughlin’s references on her application.
“I felt very confident that she would make a significant contribution if the city chose to keep her on the board,” Davis said.
He said that when McLaughlin joined the board, she didn’t know much about the airport, but that she worked hard to learn and has become an active member.
McLaughlin is finishing eight years on the City Council and has served on numerous boards and commissions. She is the former president of the Washington Association of Cities.
Larison said that Condon suggested he apply for the airport board position after he told the mayor that he was “interested in helping out any way I could.”
He said he talked to several airport officials and determined it would be a good fit for him.
“It sounded like it would be a way to give back to a county and city that gave me a platform to build a good business in,” he said.
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