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Aviation Board praises outgoing executive director but remains unhappy about recent controversy

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority accepted the resignation of Louis Miller, right, as executive director of Tampa International Airport and named his deputy, John Wheat, left, interim director. Miller will act as an adviser until April 23.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority accepted the resignation of Louis Miller, right, as executive director of Tampa International Airport and named his deputy, John Wheat, left, interim director. Miller will act as an adviser until April 23.

On his last day as executive director of Tampa International Airport, Louis Miller was praised by his bosses for nearly 14 years service as they accepted his resignation.

But members of the airport's governing board also made it clear Thursday they weren't happy about the airport's latest controversy: violations of the state's open government law.

In December, airport staff ranked bidders on two multimillion-dollar projects in meetings that weren't publicly noticed as required by the Sunshine Law. Staff had to go through the process again last week to fix the legal problem.

Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board members on Thursday picked the same top-ranked firms they had approved earlier this year — Alfonso Architects and HC Beck.

Contracts awarded though an illegal process can be challenged in court and thrown out, said Barbara Petersen of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes Florida's open government laws.

"I want to make sure going forward that any board item has your legal seal of approval that applicable laws have been followed," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told Gigi Rechel, the agency's general counsel.

Board chairman Al Austin was upset by a report in the St. Petersburg Times that Rechel warned Miller in 2002 that the ranking meetings were subject to the Sunshine Law.

"I've been here over 10 years and was never aware of it," Austin said. "This might have been avoided if the members or the chairman had been made aware of that."

Miller said Thursday there were conflicting legal opinions about the issue at the time. Authority attorneys don't know of any other contracting irregularities but are still looking, Rechel said.

Miller resigned last week, saying he'd accomplished his goals and wanted to move on. On Thursday, board members picked John Wheat, his longtime deputy, as interim executive director until they select a permanent replacement.

Miller will work through April 23, advising Wheat and introducing him to more than a dozen boards where the airport's chief executive serves. He will continue to receive his salary of $253,294 a year during that time.

"If you look at the totality of Mr. Miller's 14 years, you can't help but come to the conclusion the airport has moved ahead in all respects," Iorio said. "That kind of excellence only happens through exceptional attention to detail."

County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he was saddened by Miller's resignation last week and called his contributions "immeasurable." Austin said the airport would give Miller recognition for his service at the next board meeting April 1.

Former Hillsborough Commissioner Chris Hart recounted how smoothly the airport ran under Miller's leadership. "You are a real son of this community and made it better," he said. The meeting room, packed with airport employees, broke into a full minute of applause.

The board's two newest members, attorney Steven Burton and surgeon Joseph Diaco, didn't comment on Miller's performance. Both had been critical of the him in recent months.

In December, Burton proposed a new panel — with himself as chairman — to develop strategies for attracting international flights. The board enacted the proposal over objections by Miller. Burton then balked at Miller's decision, since reversed, to demolish the old Continental Airlines reservations center.

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 just one airport official — approve the requests.

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

Aviation Board praises outgoing executive director but remains unhappy about recent controversy 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 9:57pm]

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