Interviews for Tampa airport director will be closed to public


Sept. 02--TAMPA -- In two weeks, Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board members will interview four finalists on a consultant's short list for executive director of Tampa International Airport and three general aviation airports.

Neither the public nor the news media, however, will be allowed to observe interviews scheduled for Sept. 15 and 16.

That means questions the five Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board members ask during hour-long interviews and how the candidates respond under pressure won't be made public.

While responding to a series of Tampa Tribune questions about the interview process, authority counsel Gigi Rechel, put in charge of organizing the search, said she proposed to board members that

the public and the news media be invited to a Sept. 15 reception with the candidates from Michigan, Texas, Rhode Island and south Florida.

The board is scheduled to discuss and vote on a choice for executive director at its regularly scheduled public monthly meeting on Oct. 7.

Florida's Sunshine Law prohibits authority members from discussing business with one another in private. Interviews between a single board member and a candidate can remain private.

However, said Jim Rhea, director of the non-partisan First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, "These are positions of high importance and public trust. For positions of this type it is very important for the process to be open and to make sure the public gets the best person for the position.

"Every group has its way of doing interviews," he said. "It sounds like there's not a problem if no one is making a decision or winnowing down the list of candidates before coming back after individual meetings to the open discussion at a public meeting."

Asked why the interviews would not be open to the public, Rechel responded, "We are adhering to a process suggested by our professional aviation recruiter," referring to the Spencer Stuart executive search firm's Miami office.

Aviation authority chairman Al Austin, a prominent Tampa developer, said it would not be fair to candidates to discuss issues that could have a bearing on their current jobs and employers.

"It has to be closed," Austin said. "I want the candidates to be open. We are talking with someone we never met before and asking them to tell us everything they can to tough questions."

Other jurisdictions have been divided on permitting public interviews.

Last year in Jacksonville, board members met individually with airport director candidates to keep the interviews private.

In Collier County this year, the county commission, which also acts as the aviation boardy, televised the interviews of the finalists to oversee three general aviation airports.

Tampa's executive search follows airport director Louis Miller resignation of his $253,294 job in February following politically polarizing conflicts with new board members.

The four candidates on the consultant's short list are Joseph Lopano, an executive vice president of marketing at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport; Kent George, director of aviation for the Broward County Aviation Department in Fort Lauderdale; Kevin Dillon, chief executive officer of the Rhode Island Airport Commission that manages T.F. Green Airport near Providence; and Lester Robinson, former chief executive of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport.

Robinson is also a finalist for Atlanta's airport director, along with Miller and one other candidate.

The public reception in Tampa will be at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 15 at the Airport Marriott. Rechel said Spencer Stuart recruiter Michael Bell will invite the candidates to the reception and they will be encouraged to mingle with the guests.

"I believe this provides the public ample opportunity to view the decision making process," Rechel said.

Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at 813-259-7817.