Mayor Pam Iorio's last year on the board that governs Tampa International Airport has been as tumultuous as the first seven were calm and collegial.
She and other members dealt with the resignation of an embattled executive director, years of improperly issued variances, public meetings held outside the sunshine and, most recently, a senior executive putting himself in position to influence the award of a contract to a firm where his wife works.
Now, Iorio says she's lost faith in leadership of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority to handle problems in the open manner required of a public agency. That won't get fixed until a new executive director, Joseph Lopano, arrives from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to take the reins Jan. 1, Iorio says.
"It's difficult to understand the dynamics of the staff," she said in an interview this week. "The new person can't come soon enough. I'm sure he'll get to the bottom of it."
Even if an investigation of the potential conflict of interest finds no wrongdoing, Iorio and fellow board members worry the appearance of impropriety has tarnished the agency's reputation. The authority will generate $163 million in revenue this year, mostly from parking, airline charges, rental cars and concessions.
Iorio remains puzzled over how two top authority executives — its general counsel and interim director — handled a potential conflict of interest involving Lou Russo, the agency's former senior director of planning and development.
General counsel Gigi Skipper Rechel told her in late February or early March that Russo served on a committee that evaluated contract proposals by Gresham, Smith and Partners. Russo's wife, Jacqueline, works in the design firm's Tampa office as a senior associate and principal in the corporate and urban design division.
Iorio went to John Wheat, the authority's interim director since the March resignation of longtime executive director Louis Miller. Wheat said he would take care of the problem.
On Nov. 4, eight months later, the authority board heard presentations from three firms vying for the contract to design a $7.9 million renovation of the airport's main terminal. The firm ranked as most qualified by a staff evaluation committee: Gresham Smith.
Before board members selected a winner, Iorio leaned over to Wheat and said he should reveal Russo's connection to the firm. Other members of the five-person board were caught off-guard by the disclosure.
"This is an abomination and you've got to stop it," board member Steven Burton scolded.
Rechel had told him earlier that Russo had a "nepotism issue" with a contractor, but didn't identify the firm, Burton said Thursday. That Wheat failed to disclose the potential conflict earlier "shocked me," he said. Board chairman Al Austin and member Joseph Diaco said they knew nothing about Russo's wife working for Gresham Smith before the meeting. Wheat declined to comment Thursday.
Russo didn't serve on the committee that reviewed the terminal project proposals. But five of six members worked for him, a relationship Iorio and some other members considered inappropriate. Wheat has acknowledged he told Russo only to stay off the committee himself, a half-step that Iorio says didn't prevent the appearance of impropriety.
"It's common sense to recuse yourself and your subordinates from the process," she said. "This point seems so fundamental. I can't understand why it went on so long."
Russo, 52, resigned from the agency Tuesday, saying he would pursue other job opportunities.
Iorio questioned why Rechel told her and Burton — but not other board members — about the matter. Rechel said members were briefed on "any concerns" raised in an earlier investigation into airport procurement. She couldn't say if that included Russo's Gresham Smith connection because of attorney-client privilege, Rechel said.
Iorio was a longtime and vocal supporter of Miller before he left in March, even as issues were raised about height variances improperly approved by him. She was critical of the authority's lack of public notice for meetings to evaluate contract proposals, but otherwise spoke highly of Miller's nearly 14-year leadership. Thursday, she declined to address his tenure, focusing instead on recent months.
"It's been very concerning how this thing has unfolded,'' Iorio said. "A new person is going to have to come in and put this house in order.''
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8128.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Mayor Pam Iorio expressed a lack of confidence in Aviation Authority staff. A previous headline incorrectly identified the target of her criticism.