Frying pan or the fire

The Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority can’t win.

If it refuses to pay bills arising from a controversial building project, local businesses suffer. If it pays the bills, critics cry malfeasance.

Something had to give. On Tuesday, the board opted to pay Shaw Construction $867,000 of the $1.2 million the contractor says it’s owed on an unfinished administration building at the airport.

We think that’s the right move. A small group of airport tenants disagrees. They lobbied the board to go to court to challenge the validity of Shaw’s contract, calling it “fatally flawed” because it didn’t go through a competitive bid process.

The board certainly could have gone that route and used court proceedings as a way to buy some time. But that would have punished Shaw and its subcontactors, several of whom say they are in dire financial straits as a result of the board’s wavering. Our view is that the authority should pay for work that’s been completed because the contract — regardless of the conditions under which it originated — specified payment for services rendered. Any questions stemming from the validity of the contract should be the board’s problem, not Shaw’s.

We’re putting our faith in the board. It was a unanimous decision, and members are keenly aware that anything less than full compliance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements could endanger future grants or the authority’s non-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice.

“We’re sticking our necks out a ways,” authority Chairman Steve Wood said at Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re betting we’re going to get certification” that the nature and quality of the work on the administration building passes muster with regulators.

It’s the latest sign that the board is finding some level of self-assurance after navigating through the muddy waters of a federal investigation of fraud allegations. The investigation led to the dismissal of the airport’s aviation director, who headed the $6.5 million administration building project. But his exit raised questions about agreements with architectural and engineering firms involved and forced the authority to stop construction in its tracks.

The board’s actions since — tightening controls and fostering transparency — have earned it a measure of trust. We hope that trust isn’t misplaced.

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