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Tampa International Airport board shows deep divide as it resolves controversies

Officials who oversee Tampa International Airport sought Thursday to defuse controversies that consumed the airport's former boss.

In the process, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board exposed a split between its chairman and senior member Al Austin, and two most recent appointees by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Steven Burton, managing partner of the Broad & Cassell law firm in Tampa, and surgeon Joseph Diaco have been the most vocal critics of Louis Miller, who resigned Feb. 24 after 14 years as the airport's executive director.

Both have suggested that previous boards let Miller run the airport as he wished and rubber-stamped his decisions. Austin, a board member since 1999, was among Miller's staunchest defenders.

The conflict boiled over during a discussion about starting a search for a replacement for Miller. Burton proposed that Diaco chair a committee to work with whatever executive search firm the authority hires to find candidates.

Austin countered that a former board member with more experience would be better suited for the position. "Dr. Diaco and you have been on the board only a few months," he said. "There's a lot to learn."

He then challenged an assertion by Burton that board members weren't at odds with each other but merely engaging in healthy discussions . "When it came to Louis Miller," said Austin, "we were divided."

"I was getting misinformation — I was lied to," said Diaco, referring to statements by Miller in January that a vacant airport building attracted no interest from potential tenants. In fact, a Moffitt Cancer Center representative had contacted the airport staff.

Mayor Pam Iorio ended the spat by proposing the authority's legal staff prepare a formal solicitation for executive search firms by next month and deal with other details later. The motion passed unanimously.

Miller, who remains at the airport in an advisory role through April 23, wasn't at the board meeting. He appeared before the Tampa City Council meeting receiving a commendation for his leadership at the airport and community involvement since coming to the city in 1996.

Early in the airport meeting, board members heard from former Tampa city attorney David Smith about his investigation into height zoning permits that Miller improperly issued throughout his time at Tampa International.

State law requires that a local variance board — not an individual — issue permits for structures that exceed federal height limits near airports. Tampa International didn't have a board. All applications had to be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration before going to Miller's staff.

From 1998 through last month, Smith found, the airport approved 302 permits. Many were for short-term use of construction cranes. "Nonetheless, since they do not comply with the applicable regulations, they were not lawfully issued," Smith wrote in his report.

New height zoning rules approved Thursday make the board or a designated hearing officer the final local authority on permit applications.

Later in the meeting, board members voiced support for renting the empty building, the former Continental Airlines reservations center, to Moffitt pending a formal lease and approval from the FAA.

Moffitt officials want to renovate the building into a treatment and imaging facility. The move would generate $8.3 million for the airport over 20 years, said John Wheat, Tampa International's interim executive director.

The building has "gone from being something that needs to be demolished to something of great value," said Iorio.

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

Tampa International Airport board shows deep divide as it resolves controversies 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 11:52pm]
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