The new chief executive at Tampa International Airport, Joe Lopano, has headed off what would have been another public relations problem by asking the airport authority to forgo consideration today of increasing his pay after only nine months in the job.
Steve Burton, who chairs the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board, which oversees the airport, said Tuesday that Lopano deserved a raise that was "substantially more" than the 3 percent bump that other agency employees received on Saturday, the start of the new fiscal year. Lopano, who serves under a contract with the board, is paid $305,000 a year in salary, pension contributions and car allowances. A 3 percent pay increase would put that package at $312,500. While Burton did not propose a specific amount, he had suggested a pay package that could easily top $350,000, or about what Lopano earned at his previous job at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The authority board was expected to take up the matter today.
But late Wednesday, after a meeting between Lopano and Burton, the airport announced that Lopano would ask that the matter be postponed. The board is scheduled to discuss Lopano's performance review, and Burton is still free to propose a pay increase. But Lopano has given Burton a face-saving way to reconsider the matter and his board more time to judge his performance.
Airport officials were right to recognize the appearance of giving the CEO a pay raise so early in his term. No one can argue with Lopano's successes in his first few months. He secured new nonstop flights to Zurich, produced a plan to boost traffic and revenue and launched a review of how the airport could be a bigger engine for the region's economy. These are good starts. But they are exactly what the board said it wanted when culling the candidates for CEO. Lopano has not even (technically, at least) delivered. It is impossible to tell whether he will boost revenue in 2012; he is only five days into the budget year. And the new flights to Zurich don't start until May. The board needs a clearer picture of whether his strategy is working and a longer track record before it hands out a big raise.
Lopano did not push the pay raise; Burton did. The chairman says he wants to keep other cities from poaching Lopano. But TIA should expect a new chief executive to get his feet wet in this community before moving on. This issue is as much about public perception as it is the pay for a public official. The board does no favor to Lopano by acting rashly with money at a time when many bay area residents are struggling and anxious about their jobs — and many more have not seen raises in years. And it only resurrects the earlier public relations mistakes under Lopano that included lavish meals and plans for executive travel. The first-year mark of Lopano's three-year contract comes in January. That is an appropriate time for the board to examine his record and the adequacy of his pay.