TAMPA — Longtime Tampa International executive director Louis Miller abruptly resigned Wednesday after months of uncharacteristic scrutiny from his bosses.
Miller, 61, wrote members of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board that he wants to work through April 23 so they have time to appoint an interim executive director and begin the search for a permanent replacement. His current contract wouldn't have expired until June 30, 2012.
"During my nearly 14 years as the executive director ... I sincerely believe I have accomplished the goals and objectives that were established during my tenure,'' he wrote. "With this in mind, I have come to the decision to explore other opportunities.''
In an interview with the Times, Miller said disagreements with board members didn't figure in his decision.
"It's all very positive,'' he said. "I feel very comfortable with what I've accomplished. I've been thinking about this for quite a while.''
He told board chairman Al Austin his plan to resign Wednesday morning. Austin tried to talk him out of it without success.
"There have been a few things that came up that were bothersome to Louis, but I thought we'd worked through them,'' Austin said.
Elected officials serving on the board reacted with surprise and regret.
"I am very sorry that Louis Miller is resigning,'' said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "Over the past 14 years, he has helped to make Tampa International Airport one of the best in the nation. He will be greatly missed.''
"I'm shocked and deeply saddened to hear the news,'' said Ken Hagan, chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission. "He has served our community with distinction and made our airport what it is today."
In 1996, Miller came from Salt Lake City to replace retiring George Bean, father of the current Tampa International. Like Bean, Miller ran the airport with few, if any, objections from his bosses in public.
But the tone changed when Gov. Charlie Crist passed over incumbent board members Stephen Mitchell and Ken Anthony for reappointment. Instead, last July, Crist picked surgeon Dr. Joseph Diaco and Steven Burton, managing partner of the Broad and Cassel law firm and a Republican fundraiser.
In December, Burton urged the board to set up a panel to examine how the airport could increase its meager roster of international flights. His plan passed over Miller's objection.
Miller took heat the following month for deciding to demolish the former Continental Airlines reservations center without full board approval. Austin, who owns commercial property in the nearby West Shore district, was the only sitting board member consulted.
Then, a St. Petersburg Times story detailed how Miller has decided who gets permits for antennas, new buildings, cranes and other structures that exceed federal height limits around Tampa International and three general-aviation airports. All projects were deemed safe by the Federal Aviation Administration before reaching Miller's desk.
But a 1977 Florida law calls for airports in the state to have a board of adjustment to decide if projects built higher than federal limits should proceed.
The board hired David Smith, a land-use law expert and former Tampa city attorney, to make sure the permits were issued properly and proposed new regulations pass legal muster. He also is empowered to review "certain Authority processes,'' according to a memo to the board from the authority's general counsel, Gigi Rechel.
Smith has talked with board members privately but is "just starting into the zoning issue'' and hasn't filed any report, he said Wednesday.
Burton said events were moving so quickly, he wanted a full briefing. "I'm looking forward to a bright future for the airport,'' he said.
He denied having a personal conflict with Miller.
The outgoing executive director will leave big footsteps behind.
He presided over periods of rapid growth at Tampa International. He oversaw construction of multimillion-dollar terminals for the airport's largest airlines (Southwest and Delta), the airport's first remote economy parking garage and a cell phone lot for people waiting to pick up passengers.
Soon after arriving, Miller lifted a long-standing ban on sales of chewing gum at the airport. He took police off the curbs and put traffic specialists in charge of keeping vehicles moving.
Miller is well regarded among airport executives and a former chairman of their trade group, Airport Councils International-North America. He is currently treasurer of the worldwide organization.
Under Miller, the airport continued to score high marks with travelers. Last week, a J.D. Power and Associates customer satisfaction survey named Tampa International the third-best midsize U.S. airport. The airport also gets praise from employees as a good place to work,
The aviation authority ranked in the top 60 places to work and the top 10 in the large employer category, according to a recent survey commissioned by the St. Petersburg Times of almost 17,000 employees from businesses and organizations throughout the Tampa Bay area.
"It's like the saddest day,'' said Mitchell, the former board member. "He's an invaluable asset to the community. Anyone he goes (to work) with will appreciate him. He's a special guy.''
Staff Writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.