Is the job of Tampa International Airport's executive director in jeopardy?
That's the talk in political circles after a rare spate of criticism leveled at Louis Miller from some of his bosses on the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board. The tone changed after Gov. Charlie Crist replaced two Miller allies last July.
Steven G. Burton, a Tampa lawyer and Republican fundraiser, began peppering Miller with questions about how the airport runs soon after joining the board. He publicly clashed with Miller at the last two monthly board meetings.
"People who follow these things are speculating there's a hidden agenda,'' said Sandy Freedman, who was on the board during her term as Tampa mayor. "Most new members listen and learn. (Burton) didn't sound like he was prepared to do that. It sounds like he has someone else in mind.''
James Ransom, a Tampa community activist, wrote Crist with similar concerns. "Unfortunately, there appears to be a tug of war emerging as a result of Mr. Burton's tactics, which may disrupt an otherwise stellar operation,'' he said in a Dec. 14 e-mail.
Burton says he's not gunning for Miller, Tampa International's boss since 1996, and he's not put off by a management style he considers autocratic.
"His style is not my concern,'' said Burton, managing partner in the Tampa law office of Broad and Cassel. "His performance and lack of openness is my concern.''
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Their first confrontation flared in September via e-mails over staff efforts to beef up the handful of international flights at TIA, a longtime struggle for the airport. Miller points to studies that show weak demand in the bay area for most international destinations.
Burton asked for specific documents: marketing plans, staff members assigned, the budget for recruiting international airlines to Tampa. He wanted to know how the airport was lobbying to win federal approval for charter flights to Cuba. Burton suggested retaining a Washington, D.C., lobbyist in addition to the agency's full-time lobbyist.
Then he requested employment contracts with "all key department heads, including yours, so I may undergo my own evaluation.'' Miller shot back that they needed to talk about the role of board members and his responsibilities as CEO of the airport.
Burton responded: "I'm not sure what you mean . . . but of course I'm happy to hear any input you have. As I've told you many times in the past, I'm inquiring in areas about which members of the community have asked.'' They never had the face-to-face discussion.
Then Burton went public, surprising staff at a Dec. 7 board meeting by asking for a new committee — chaired by himself — to invigorate the airport's effort to recruit more international flights. His motion passed despite Miller's objection.
Last month, Burton criticized Miller for deciding to demolish the former Continental Airlines reservations center at the airport without board approval. Miller consulted only one current member, chairman Al Austin, who owns commercial property nearby in the West Shore area.
Miller contended the two-story building would need costly repairs and didn't fit in with the airport's long-term plans for a private aircraft hangar. He also said there were no tenants interested in the 30-year-old building.
Members later learned real estate brokers with potential tenants expressed interest last year, only to be told it was too late. Miller put the demolition on hold last month to negotiate a possible lease with Moffitt Cancer Center.
Miller, 61, declined to discuss his relationship with Burton or rumors about his future at Tampa International. He's well regarded among airport executives and is a former chairman of their trade group, Airport Councils International-North America. He is currently treasurer of the worldwide organization.
Under Miller, Tampa International continued to score high marks with travelers. He supervised construction of two multimillion dollar airside terminals and a conveyor system for examining checked bags.
He has enjoyed support for most of the last decade from a board that included Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and three Republicans appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush and Crist: Tampa lawyer Stephen Mitchell, developer Al Austin and insurance agency owner Ken Anthony.
"Louis Miller is hands-down one of the most effective and well-respected airport executives in North America,'' Mitchell said.
Mitchell and Anthony applied for reappointment to the board last year, with Miller's encouragement. But Crist picked Burton and Dr. Joseph Diaco, a Tampa surgeon and former team doctor for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Burton raised funds for Crist's campaigns for governor and state attorney general. The state GOP named him finance co-chair for the party in April.
In an e-mail to the governor's appointments office in June, Republican attorney Mary Ann Stiles of Tampa said Anthony would keep doing a good job. But she recommended Burton, and then Diaco "if the governor wants to make a change.''
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Removing Miller, who makes $253,294 a year, would likely be costly. His contract stipulates that he get pay and benefits through June 30, 2012.
An ouster would require three of the five board members. Iorio and Austin have strongly defended the executive director at public meetings. Diaco described himself Monday as uncommitted about Miller's performance.
That leaves Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. Last week, he praised Miller in unambiguous terms.
"We have one of the finest airports in the country, and it's due to Mr. Miller's leadership,'' Hagan said. "He's doing a fantastic job.''
But the political math can change. A new mayor will replace Iorio next spring. Austin's term expires in July 2011. The Hillsborough County Commission chooses a commissioner to sit on the board at the end of each year.
Political junkies recall the resignation last March of Henry Saavedra, executive director of the Tampa Sports Authority. After 24 years at the agency, 12 as its top executive, Saavedra resigned rather than face a vote on his ouster. The end came after board members complained he was keeping them in the dark about board matters and undermining their decisions.
Steve Huettel can be reached at (313) 226-3384 or [email protected]