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Mayor Buckhorn describes giving TIA CEO Lopano another raise as 'ridiculous'

TAMPA — Joe Lopano hasn't gotten the call yet. No other airport has tried to recruit the CEO of Tampa International Airport for its top job. So far, it's just speculation that anyone else wants him, just a newspaper editorial halfway across the country and calls from some friends.

But just the hint that another airport could look at Lopano was enough for his bosses to act Friday: The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority governing board voted to renegotiate Lopano's contract and could potentially offer him more money to stay in Tampa.

The only board member to object was Mayor Bob Buckhorn. The airport's CEO got two raises and two contract extensions last year. When Buckhorn's fellow board members mulled taking a third look at Lopano's contract in 14 months, the mayor barely contained his fury.

"I mean it's a joke," Buckhorn said. "It's absolutely a joke. I'm not going to support any motion that comes out of here."

Lopano's name has come up as his old employer, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, starts its search for a new CEO. Board chairman Steve Burton called Friday's special meeting to discuss how to keep Lopano from being recruited away.

But the chairman had to defend his reasoning to the mayor, who called the meeting's purpose "ridiculous."

"There is nothing ridiculous about calling the board and asking their thoughts," Burton said, "and there's nothing ridiculous about making sure we have an agreement that both accurately reflects Mr. Lopano's value to this community and to other potential communities.

"It's also not a joke, Mr. Mayor, that he is being pursued and will continue to be pursued."

The board voted 3-1 to explore the possibility of inserting a noncompete clause into Lopano's contract, which doesn't expire until 2016. The board also directed staff to research the contracts of comparable CEOs and see if there any other perks or benefits they can give him.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist, the only other elected official on the board, didn't attend the special meeting because of a family emergency. He said later that he agreed with the mayor. He also questioned whether the board should start negotiating a new contract for Lopano without knowing what salary offer they might be competing against.

The board — the mayor included — all said they want to keep Lopano. But to get him to sign a noncompete clause, the board would likely have to offer Lopano financial compensation in exchange for giving up his right to look for other opportunities.

That did not sit well with the mayor. Lopano, who has been on the job for two years and two months, got two raises and two contract extensions last year. In January 2012 the board voted 3-2 to give Lopano a $50,000 raise. Buckhorn and Crist voted against the raise. Then in October, the board voted 5-0 on a $15,000 merit raise.

Lopano now makes $315,000 annually.

"A contract's a contract," Buckhorn said. "I think, and maybe it's just my own personal ethos, but we're obligated to live up to our contracts."

Lopano said the Dallas-Forth Worth CEO job was one he was interested in during his 14 years spent there, rising to executive vice president for marketing. He said he has neither inquired about nor been officially recruited for the job.

But he did say Friday that friends in Dallas have made unofficial inquiries. An editorial in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram also named Lopano as a potential CEO candidate.

Burton, who helped oust former Tampa International CEO Louis Miller, said he felt the need to call Friday's meeting so the board could discuss the rumors about its current CEO.

Lopano was brought to Tampa International to rebuild its faded roster of overseas routes. He has traveled all over Europe and Latin America to market the airport. Under Lopano the airport has added routes to Switzerland and Cuba, paid down its debt and increased its revenues. Lopano is now overseeing the completion of the airport's new master plan.

Buckhorn himself praised the job Lopano has done. But the mayor's displeasure was evident from the start. He sat back in his chair and grumbled while other board members spoke. "Just talking to myself," he said with a wave of his hand.

The mayor implied that this was a ploy to surpass other high salaries in the area. Buckhorn may have been referring to newly hired Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson, whose annual salary of $350,000 makes him the highest-paid port CEO in Florida.

"If this is about someone else who came to town and got more, I'm sorry," Buckhorn said. "This is about him living up to his contract through 2016.

"This is ridiculous. I'm not going to go through this dance every time someone calls Mr. Lopano."

The best way to compensate Lopano further, the mayor said, was to let him to finish out his contract and meet all his goals for the airport and then reward him with a new contract.

The airport CEO sat silently to the mayor's right while Buckhorn bickered with his fellow board members. When asked if there was a rift between him and the mayor, Lopano responded by complimenting Buckhorn.

"I have a lot of respect for the mayor," he said. "I think he's doing a tremendous job. He has every right to express his opinion. He's my boss. I take his opinion very seriously."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Mayor Buckhorn describes giving TIA CEO Lopano another raise as 'ridiculous' 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 10:29pm]

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