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At TIA, outgoing boss did it his way

Louis Miller has lived, eaten and breathed airports for nearly 14 years. Or, rather, one airport: Tampa International.

The executive director had breakfast before dawn each day at the Chili's in Airside F. He drove the maze of rebuilt roads around the airport looking for trouble spots. Miller walked the terminals, eavesdropping to learn what regular people said about the facilities and their experience.

He stuck by his ideas about how Tampa International should run and stiffened his neck to criticism — especially from people inexperienced in how airports work. That made Miller vulnerable when new members of the airport's board began asking pointed questions.

On Thursday, his bosses are expected to accept the resignation he tendered last week. Miller would work with pay through April 23 to advise John Wheat, his longtime deputy whom the board will almost certainly name interim executive director.

Miller arrived in 1996 to replace George Bean, the father of today's Tampa International. Miller quietly became an agent of change, canceling a pricey Christmas for airline managers at the posh Tampa Club that cost $77 a head the year before.

Soon, taboos of the Bean era disappeared. Miller allowed sales of chewing gum inside Tampa International. He built an interfaith chapel in the main terminal and put women and minorities in senior staff positions.

He worked tirelessly. On Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks, Miller, two board members and their wives were in Montreal for a world conference of airport executives. Planes were grounded and rental cars disappeared. They leased a van and drove straight back to Tampa.

Miller also worked by rigid rules of conduct that some considered out of place for Tampa. In the '90s, he invited state legislators for an airport tour. When Tampa International's lobbyist suggested souvenirs and refreshments, Miller put his foot down. The gift giving is now illegal.

"At that time, it was standard procedure," said B.J. Newberger, a former lobbyist who no longer works for the airport. "He's going to do it by his standards or it's not going to get done. Sometimes, his standards were higher than those accepted by the community."

Tampa lawyer John Fitzgibbons wrote Miller two years ago to point out "extreme congestion" at security screening lines before the first US Airways morning flight to Washington. He suggested the airport look into Clear, a company that operated separate, faster lines for paying members who passed background checks.

Miller wrote back that "we are not inclined to consider the Clear Program." He noted initiatives TIA had taken and pointed out the airport's peak-hour wait times were among the best for large airports. Fitzgibbons was miffed. But a year later, Clear folded. "So, I guess he was right," he says.

Miller came under pressure last year after Gov. Charlie Crist appointed two new board members: lawyer Steven Burton, managing partner of the Broad and Cassel firm in Tampa, and Joseph Diaco, a Tampa surgeon.

Burton was soon swapping pointed e-mails with the executive director. Burton wanted a briefing and documents dealing with a sensitive subject: the airport's efforts to increase its meager schedule of international flights.

At a December board meeting, Burton floated a proposal not on the agenda. He asked members to authorize a new international marketing committee with himself as chairman. Over Miller's objection, the board approved it on a 3-2 vote. After the meeting, Miller left steaming.

Soon, news stories reported Miller decided to tear down the former Continental Airlines reservation center. Some board members criticized the move and were upset Miller informed only Al Austin, board chairman and owner of office property in the nearby West Shore district.

Miller postponed the demolition after a real estate broker representing the Moffitt Cancer Center said his client was interested in leasing the building.

Next came a St. Petersburg Times story saying that Miller for years had approved permits for structures and cranes that exceeded Federal Aviation Authority height limits around airports. The permits had already been cleared by the FAA. But a 1977 state law requires that a variance board — not a single airport official — approve the requests.

Last week, officials acknowledged the airport violated state open-government laws in December by failing to give notice of staff meetings to review two project bid proposals.

They fixed the legal problem by ranking the proposals in open meetings Friday. But no one would say if other meetings also violated the law.

On the day he resigned, Miller said the friction with his bosses didn't cause him to leave. He had accomplished his work at Tampa International, he said, and wanted to move on. But lots of people still have questions.

Will an investigation by former Tampa City Attorney David Smith turn up anything bad enough to explain Miller's abrupt departure? Or has Miller just had enough of people questioning how he ran the airport that he poured his heart into?

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

At TIA, outgoing boss did it his way 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 9:49pm]
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