Louis Miller accomplished many good things in his 14 years as executive director of Tampa International Airport. He guided TIA through an era of unprecedented growth and the post-9/11 security challenges, leaving the region with an airport that is routinely ranked among the nation's best. But Miller owes the public an explanation for why he abruptly resigned Wednesday, two years before his contract expires.
Did the recent finding that Miller overstepped his authority on administrative matters play a role? Has the county aviation authority board's increasing micromanagement made it hard for the director to function? Are there other reasons yet to become public? These are essential questions to resolve if the airport is to find a successor who can build on Miller's achievements and seize fresh opportunities.
Miller has caught flak in recent months for not seeking full board approval for his plan to demolish an airport office building, and for ruling on some construction permits instead of sending them to the board. Steven Burton, a Tampa attorney named to the board last year by Gov. Charlie Crist, also has criticized Miller for Tampa's lack of nonstop international flights. The two have exchanged barbs about what line should exist between the board and the professional staff.
Miller said Thursday that any friction between him and Burton had been overplayed. He said he decided to leave because his work is done. During his tenure, the airport vastly expanded domestic air service, constructed new passenger terminals and developed more convenient and cheaper parking. He led TIA in accommodating the imposing security demands after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. And Miller set Tampa apart by making the passenger and public concourses attractive, functional and safe. His attention to detail also made him highly regarded among his professional peers. The airport continually scored high in U.S. traveler rankings and was rated by employees as a top place to work.
But if all is fine, doesn't he have an obligation to the community to fulfill his contract? The recession is forcing many challenges on TIA, and the airport needs a steady hand at the helm. If there are larger issues with the director or the board, the public deserves to know them as well. The timing is simply too convenient for the airport director to walk away from months of public infighting.
The board can bet that every prospective applicant for Miller's job is asking the same questions. The last thing board members should want to do is create a climate of uncertainty as they embark on the search for a new director. The end to Miller's era is partly a story of personalities. But the board and its new director will need to agree on the line between the policymaking board and the executive staff. The airport is an important regional asset, and it needs clear, strong leadership.