Charleston airport board to reconsider vote giving chairman authority over director
The Charleston County Aviation Authority will meet Monday to reconsider its recent vote that gave the chairman direct oversight of the executive director.
The sudden and controversial change this month set off a firestorm of protest, with many calling it a “power grab” by Chairman Chip Limehouse, who is a state lawmaker, and illegal because it was not posted on a meeting agenda.
“We are going to revisit the issue and reverse the vote,” Limehouse said Friday.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the vote illegal because it violated the state’s Freedom of Information Act, since the item was not on the posted agenda, but no other board members backed him up. “It was a mistake, and I’m glad it will be revisited,” he said.
Limehouse said he had been pilloried in the polls of public opinion since the vote.
“I have been unfairly criticized, but we can undo it,” he said.
The move is not to shore up support in advance of Thursday’s vote for the chairman of the Aviation Authority, Limehouse said.
“I think it’s up to the board who the chairman will be,” he said. “Whether I’m chairman is not the issue. The issue is reform, and I will continue to press for it.”
The Aviation Authority owns and operates three airports, including Charleston International. Its profile has risen in recent years because of the arrival of Boeing Co.’s 787 campus, which leases land from the agency. The authority also is embarking on a $150 million overhaul of its passenger terminal and other improvements. This week, the airport welcomed discount carrier JetBlue Airways, which will launch nonstop service to New York and Boston Feb. 28.
Attorney Waring Howe, a former aviation board chairman who is suing Limehouse because he thinks his appointment to the board is unconstitutional, called it “commendable and fortunate that Chairman Limehouse has seen the light ... (and) seen fit to reverse what was illegal and unnecessary.”
Howe said he believes Limehouse is making the move in advance of Thursday’s vote so he will remain at the helm of the board. “It may be too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube,” Howe said.
Limehouse said he raised the issue of overseeing the director only after Riley pressed the board during a heated closed-door session Sept. 4 to approve a four-year contract for Sue Stevens. She has been airports director since 2007 and an airport employee for 25 years.
“I am opposed to giving contracts to public employees,” Limehouse said. “It would cost the public $848,000 to get out of.”
Limehouse said he has no intention of replacing Stevens and called her a very effective administrator.
“I like Sue,” he said. “I have no intention of letting her go.”
Nevertheless, he has asked to see all of her travel expenses for the past several years.
“Why not get them out there?” Limehouse asked, referring to the travel records.
In a letter to board members Sept. 7, Stevens outlined her travel expenses from July 1, 2008, until Nov. 15, 2011, and said she offered the information to Limehouse last November after he brought up the matter.
“He declined to accept it,” Stevens said in the letter.
She also noted that the travel budget is included in the annual budget review prior to approval and “is always open to oversight by the board.” Limehouse said he is pressing for the information now to bring transparency to the agency.
“If she is authorizing her travel, shouldn’t it be looked at by someone?” he said.
In his move to rescind the vote from Sept. 4, he called the controversy a distraction from the positive momentum of the airport under his leadership. Chairman since September 2010, Limehouse said under his direction the airport landed Southwest Airlines and JetBlue, laid the groundwork for the terminal expansion and increased passengers by 30 percent.
“With so many things going on and the strong personalities on the board, there is bound to be tension,” he said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.