Tampa International Airport is a unique public asset that shapes the entire region, and the community has a significant interest in who runs the airport. That's one reason why the process for selecting the next executive director needs to be conducted in public. The airport impacts this community in countless ways, and its CEO must never forget the public considerations that come with the job.
The airport's governing board is scheduled to interview the four finalists Wednesday and Thursday. But rather than meet as a full board, which under Florida's Sunshine Law would be in public, the five members are expected to meet individually with the finalists. The board is scheduled to pick a new director Oct. 7 at a public meeting.
Public officials throughout Florida have long used one-on-one meetings to circumvent open government laws. Airport board chairman Al Austin said it would be "uncomfortable" for the finalists to be interviewed in public meetings.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who also sits on the board, wants to have private interviews, too. She says she gets a better feel for candidates outside the glare that a public meeting can bring.
These excuses are not good enough. Florida's Sunshine Law has not prevented the state from hiring some of its best and brightest public servants. Cities hire city managers, universities hire presidents and government at every level hires contractors, engineers, attorneys and other professionals while complying with the reasonable degree of public scrutiny afforded by the Sunshine Law.
If these candidates are "uncomfortable" with public scrutiny, then they are not the right people to lead TIA. What message would the airport send by telling these finalists that the biggest decisions are handled one-on-one and behind closed doors? The irony is that TIA is only seeking a new director because the previous one, Louis Miller, left after some board members charged him with operating behind the scenes. Now secrecy is part of the hiring process?
The mystery and drama surrounding Miller's departure left the public with a sour picture of the airport's management. Those questions were reignited Monday after Miller was named executive director of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport. The public needs reassurance that only a public interviewing process would offer that the board members are seeking a well-rounded chief executive — not one who just caters to their personal agendas.
The finalists also should want to sell themselves to the widest possible audience. The fight over Miller, after all, was framed as a debate over the public's right to help shape the airport's future. The selection process for the next airport director should be transparent, and the interviews of the candidates this week should be in public.