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New Florida law would make airport business less transparent

Ground crews guide in a Delta Air Lines jet to the terminal at Tampa International Airport. If Gov. Rick Scott signs a new law, there may be less clarity at airports across the state.

SKIP O’ROURKE | Times

Ground crews guide in a Delta Air Lines jet to the terminal at Tampa International Airport. If Gov. Rick Scott signs a new law, there may be less clarity at airports across the state.

Dealing with public matters in private has led to several recent controversies at Tampa International Airport.

Former executive director Louis Miller didn't disclose to some board members a potential tenant's interest in a building he wanted to demolish. Officials delayed revealing that a department head sat on a panel that evaluated contract proposals from a company that employed his wife, before he resigned.

Now, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a new law that recently sailed through the Florida Legislature with Tampa International Airport's help, you can expect even less transparency at airports across the state.

In the just-finished legislative session, TIA's lobbyist and an airport trade group helped push through sweeping public records exemptions that would affect all 22 commercial airports in Florida.

The exemptions would shield from public view any proposals from businesses seeking to buy, rent or develop airport property and facilities. The documents would become public record after an airport board approved the proposal.

"What difference does it make, then?'' said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee.

"It's a done deal. What if it turns out to be the airport director's brother-in-law, and they've already entered into an agreement? Then they're stuck with it or have a breach of contract.''

In addition, any information the company deemed proprietary would be exempt until the company chose to release it. In Tampa, business proposals coming to a vote will appear on the board's agenda, officials said. But not all the details.

Airport officials say companies are reluctant to turn over business plans, financial data and project proposals that competitors can obtain through public records requests or read in the newspaper.

For Tampa International Airport, it's all about clearing obstacles to bringing in new business, said Darcy Foster, director of government affairs.

"Like all public agencies, we're looking at being a competitive entity, trying to generate business opportunities and attract other businesses to our campus,'' she said.

Foster couldn't point to a potential deal that fell apart because of public records requirements.

In fact, airport officials will take a victory lap at a press conference Thursday to celebrate a new tenant. Global Aviation Holdings, the world's largest charter carrier for the U.S. military, recently relocated its overnight maintenance operations to the airport from New York. The move brought about 40 new jobs to Tampa.

Third-party aircraft maintenance has grown into a major employer for the airport. Three years ago, Pemco World Air Services took over a huge hangar abandoned in 2003 by then-bankrupt US Airways. The company now also uses a former Delta Air Lines hangar and employs about 700 overall in Tampa.

When the deal was in the works, Pemco didn't like seeing business information and its plans for Tampa in news stories, but that didn't derail it, said president Kevin Casey.

"It gave us pause and added a lot of angst to the process,'' said Casey. If he was looking at two cities and everything else was equal, Casey said, he'd go with the one that didn't make his plans open to the public.

Last fall, former TIA interim director John Wheat decided to ask the Florida Airports Council to back a statewide public records exemption for business proposals, Foster said.

Small airports that mainly handle private aircraft were loud supporters, said Bill Johnson, the group's executive director. Other than Tampa International, the major airports were lukewarm, he said.

During the session, Foster worked the Hillsborough County delegation and assisted, along with the airport council's lobbyist, the bill's two sponsors — Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee.

The bill sailed through both chambers: 38-1 in the Senate and 92-24 in the House. Latvala chaffed Tuesday at criticism from the First Amendment Foundation, which he said didn't make specific recommendations for changes.

"I did it to accommodate a public entity in my district,'' said Latvala.

Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who voted against the bill, tried without success to tack on an amendment in the state affairs committee that would make business proposals public 24 hours before board action. He couldn't get lobbyists for the bill to agree.

"At least it was a shot,'' he said. "The public ought to have an opportunity to look'' at details before a vote.

Contact Steve Huettel at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

New Florida law would make airport business less transparent 05/10/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 11, 2011 12:20pm]
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