County News

Come Hell or High Winds: Conference attendees do what it takes to reach D.C.

Several Utah county officials are far more chipper than would be expected during a 3:30 a.m. shuttle to the Detroit Airport. From left: Darin Bushman (Piute County), Randy Elliott (Davis County), Kerry Gibson (Weber County) is wearing the hat, Rodney Bennett (Box Elder County) and Mike Bleak (Iron County). Photo by Tammy Pearson

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Legislative Conference attendees took planes, trains, automobiles and in one case, a single bathroom break to reach conference 

Wayne Butts’ first commercial flight didn’t seem like it would be so bad — a six-hour total trip to Washington, D.C. from Boise, by way of Salt Lake City.

But when the Custer County, Idaho commissioner finally landed at Ronald Reagan National Airport for NACo’s Legislative Conference, he had spent 15 hours flying coast to coast, and back and forth between a few cities. That included four hours sitting on a Milwaukee tarmac.

High winds across the Eastern Seaboard created havoc for conference travelers in the days leading up to steering committee meetings and workshops. A total of 60 attendees couldn’t make it because of weather-related flight mishaps, though that didn’t stop the 1,553 total registrants who made it from topping last year’s attendees.

“When I took the position, I agreed to do whatever was necessary,” Butts said.

On March 2, that meant traveling first to Seattle, then Detroit, then to Milwaukee because fuel was getting low and the flight couldn’t land in Detroit. The Milwaukee approach saw the plane blown sideways.

“I’d never been in a plane where I couldn’t grab the controls myself if we got into trouble,” he said. “I’ve landed on a flight with skis, but nothing like this.”

In the end, Butts made it, but he shared an experience with many other conference-goers that was harrowing at worst and exhausting at best.


White knuckles, wan faces

Brandy Grace’s flight from Salt Lake City was a half hour ahead of schedule.

“The pilot said we were making great time, we thought we’d have time to check in to our hotel rooms before dinner that night,” said Grace, director of operations at the Utah Association of Counties.

In retrospect, that was the only time anyone could describe their trip with the words “great time.”

On the approach to D.C., flight attendants were restricted to their seats.

“That’s our first signal we knew it was bad,” Grace said. “Then we circled a few times. I wondered when we were going to come down.”

When they did try to land, the plane pulled up about 100 feet from the ground, in turbulence that made many passengers sick.

“It was like we took off again,” Grace said. “It was pretty clear we wouldn’t be landing in D.C.”

Their plane landed in Detroit, and the Utah delegation found some hotel rooms and tried to collect their baggage. One 3 a.m. wakeup call later and they arrived to find no ticket or gate agents.

When they finally landed — for real this time — in Washington, the tension of the prior day eased up, tempered by the gratitude that the group made it safely.

“What seems to be the most stressful is what you end up laughing about later on,” Grace said. “This will be something we laugh about later, ‘remember that flight?’”


By land

The husband of Oakland County, Mich. Supervisor Shelley Taub called to tell her that her flight had been cancelled.

“They put me on a new flight and it was going to take me to Minneapolis, Nashville, Texas and then to Washington at 11 p.m.,” she said. “The flight from Detroit to D.C. is an hour and four minutes. That wasn’t going to work.”

Taub called the Michigan Association of Counties, and she heard she wasn’t the only county official in that situation. Luckily for her, a group of three MAC board members were headed to D.C. in a rented van from Kent County (Grand Rapids) and they had room for one more. The only catch? One pit stop.

Nine hours later, including a stop for dinner, they made it, though they came across a fallen tree on the Washington Beltway when they were close enough to see the lights of the city.

Fortunately, predictions for snow Tuesday evening did not end up disrupting air travel, as it had in 2014. Taub and her husband found themselves in an Arlington County hotel for four days waiting to get home that year.

“I didn’t care if I stayed in Washington for a month, I wasn’t going back  to Michigan in that van,” she said. “We had a good time, but I didn’t want to push our luck.”

Pottawattamie County, Iowa Auditor Melvyn Houser learned when to cut his losses when his flight from Omaha was rerouted through Atlanta. He and Douglas County, Neb. Commissioner Chris Rodgers, a NACo past president, arrived to find their connecting flight to D.C. cancelled.

“Right then, Chris knew it was smart to just go home and try the next day,” Houser said. “He did enough traveling to know when to draw the line and when you’re just going to spin your wheels.” Houser waited it out, spending seven hours in the Atlanta airport before giving up and getting a flight home. Then he tried again the next day and got his direct flight.

“I had a Saturday morning Agriculture Committee meeting,” he said. “I thought I could make it, maybe I could get on standby.” Over the course of his trip, Houser developed a set of rules for his travel:

  1. If you have a connecting flight, do not check luggage,
  2. Keep your car keys with you in case you end up going home,
  3. If the weather is bad, go home and wait it out, and
  4. If your flight is cancelled, get in line immediately to get a flight home.

His Iowa State Association of Counties President Lonny Pulkrabek, Johnson County’s sheriff, on the other hand, managed to get to Charlotte, then drive the six-plus hours to D.C.

Like Houser, NACo Financial Services Corporation Regional Development Manager Kyle Cline made it to Charlotte before his connecting flight was cancelled and he turned back home to Indiana.

“I’d never gotten texts about cancelled flights so fast,” he said. Another flight, through Chicago, got him to Baltimore Saturday evening — after just a four-hour layover — where he found his Amtrak trip was cancelled. He eventually got to D.C. via airport shuttle, which he shared with Yuma County, Ariz. Recorder Robyn Stallworth Pouquette.

“As crazy as the two-day process was, I had the opportunity to strike up a conversation with her about U.S. Communities,” he said. “I think I made some headway introducing her to the program.”

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