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TIA chief Lopano cancels plan to hire lobbyists

The new management at Tampa International Airport moved swiftly this summer to hire lobbyists to promote the airport's interests in Washington and Tallahassee.

CEO Joe Lopano put a $250,000 line item into the 2012 budget. A request for bids went out in July. By mid August, staffers had sifted through competing proposals from 17 firms. They interviewed key executives.

Then, two weeks before a scheduled Oct. 6 airport board vote on one of the hires, Lopano canceled the lobbying project.

Why?

While the airport had plenty to spend on lobbyists, Lopano said, but it lacked a substantial plan for what it wanted them to do.

"It felt better to take a step back and make sure we had the right scope," Lopano said Thursday. He also had just completed an executive reorganization, he said, and wanted to get ideas from his new team before proceeding.

"We're going to meet with the new group about what the current legislative agenda is," Lopano said.

The airport stopped using outside lobbyists in 2005 and hired Darcy Foster as director of government affairs. She earns $106,503 annually. Her duties include lobbying in the Legislature, often in tandem with the Florida Airports Council, an airport trade group.

Earlier this year, Foster pushed for exemptions to the state public records law that would have shielded from public view any proposals from businesses seeking to buy, rent or develop airport property and facilities. The bill breezed through the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.

The only item on next year's agenda Lopano recalled Thursday was federal legislation to reimburse TIA for a multimillion-dollar checked luggage explosives-detection system finished in 2004.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Transportation Security Administration required airports to screen all checked bags for explosives. Like other airports, TIA first put hulking bag-screening machines near ticket counters.

But the machines took up so much space that passengers had trouble moving to check in or check a bag.

So the airport built a system of conveyor belts that carry bags through bomb scanners deep in the main terminal, then to areas where baggage handlers drive them to planes. The system was completed in 2004.

Since 2003, airport officials have been asking Uncle Sam to reimburse $93 million of the $124 million cost, so far without success.

Draft lists of 2012 legislative priorities provided to the St. Petersburg Times showed just nine issues total for Congress and the Florida Legislature.

If he decides to hire lobbyists later, Lopano wants to give them a full plate of work. That might include seeking grants for converting the airport bus fleet to run on natural gas or other green energy projects, he said. "We need to broaden our scope and go after more money."

In the reorganization, Foster and communications director Janet Zink report directly to Lopano. Those functions previously fell under Gigi Rechel, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel. A former staff writer at the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, Zink may take on lobbying duties during the legislative session, Lopano said.

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

TIA chief Lopano cancels plan to hire lobbyists 09/29/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 29, 2011 9:09pm]
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