Louis Miller can be autocratic and easily chafes at criticism. But he has done a wonderful job over the past 14 years leading Tampa International Airport through the double whammy of terrorism fears and recession. Steve Burton, a new member of the airport's governing board, needs to keep that long track record in mind. His repeated criticisms of Miller appear to be more motivated by politics than performance. If there are serious management concerns, he should lay them on the table.
Burton has been on a run since Gov. Charlie Crist appointed him to the five-member board in July. He criticized Miller for a lack of international nonstop flights into Tampa, questioned the agency's lobbying efforts and requested the employment contracts of Miller's senior staff so he could evaluate them. Most recently, Burton has made hay over Miller's plans to demolish a vacant office building on airport property. Burton said he had a line on a tenant for $600,000 a year; ultimately, the client offered half that amount.
Miller needs to engage his board more fully prior to making major decisions. He should have been more open about what led him to propose demolishing the office building. But there also is a line that Burton is crossing. Boards set overall policy, while the CEO is responsible for day-to-day operations. Burton has no business conducting job evaluations of Miller's staff. He should not be the go-to guy for real estate deals. As the managing partner of a Tampa law office, he should know the difference between overseeing and micromanaging.
Burton says he merely wants the airport to be competitive and transparent. But undermining the CEO's credibility is no way to attract business in this tough economic environment. Burton's tactics run counter to his goals, and a battering of even small complaints can build a head of steam. The head of Tampa's Sports Authority quit last year after constant interference by his politically appointed board. Three years ago, the director of Hillsborough's Environmental Protection Commission worked to weaken wetlands protections after heavy pressure by county commissioners.
Tampa International is a world-class asset for the entire region. It is widely regarded as convenient and professionally run. For that, Miller deserves credit. Burton may have energy and ideas, but he needs to find the appropriate role as a board member. His first few months show an incredibly heavy hand.