The governing board at Tampa International Airport did the right thing last week by reacting quickly to a clear conflict of interest. But board members had to pull teeth before TIA executives disclosed that the wife of a senior director worked for a top-ranked firm bidding for work. This is bush-league management for an airport of Tampa's stature, and the new chief executive, Joseph Lopano, needs to clean up the culture when he takes over in January.
The airport board temporarily suspended consideration of new contracts Thursday after interim director John Wheat disclosed that the wife of Louis Russo, the airport's senior planning and development director, worked for Nashville-based Gresham, Smith and Partners. An airport committee had ranked the company first in firms seeking to design a $7.9 million renovation of the main terminal. Jacqueline Russo works in the company's Tampa office. Her husband, who oversees major building projects at TIA, did not review the bid — but five of the six members who ranked the competitors work for him. That is hardly an arm's length evaluation.
The conflict was clear as day and should have been disclosed at the outset. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who sits on the governing board, raised concerns early on; all Wheat did was institute an unwritten policy that barred the staff from ranking companies that employ family members. The rule did not extend that wall of separation to subordinates, meaning that the rank-and-file could still seize an opportunity to curry favor with the boss or face pressure from above.
Board member Steve Burton was right that the move was "an abomination." And the board did the right thing by putting off a decision on this and three other contracts. Lopano needs to change the contracting process. Sloppy management is the surest way to guarantee the board will overstep its policymaking role and start to micromanage the airport's day-to-day business.