Let’s get one thing straight — Sue Stevens’ departure from the Charleston International Airport has very little to do with “verbal abuse.”
It’s all about abuse of power — by some members of the Aviation Authority board.
This has been portrayed by some as Stevens feeling “disrespected” or wilting under harsh “verbal abuse” from board members. Yes, some of the men on the authority have been less than courteous, but that’s not what this is about.
Stevens has been under fire since at least last year, when then-Chairman Chip Limehouse tried to make her report directly to him instead of the full board. The board put an end to that, but people close to the authority say very little has changed — and Stevens has finally had enough.
She told board officials she was resigning as of Sept. 30.
The bigger problem here is what’s coming for the airport. Chairman Andy Savage said Thursday that, as she was listing reasons for her departure, Stevens claimed some board members were doing things that fall between unethical and illegal.
Savage wouldn’t give specifics, but others close to the airport claim a few board members may have gotten too involved with the bid process on contracts, and have been sniffing around for jobs for their friends.
And Stevens apparently wouldn’t play ball.
In other words, the good ol’ boys had better hope Stevens doesn’t sue, because it could embarrass them at the very least — and might land some of them in serious trouble.
Last year the board was taking a hard look at Stevens and her staff.
Limehouse questioned her travel and some business practices. Some say Stevens may have been fired if not for Charleston Mayor Joe Riley.
One of the few members not appointed by the county legislative delegation, Riley had nothing to fear.
Riley says Stevens has done a fabulous job, but concedes that there have been issues with board members overreaching. Presumably, some of them have tried to meddle in airport operations.
“I think that is part of the problem,” Riley says. “The role of the board is to set policy and approve budgets.”
Not run the show.
Since the Charleston County Aviation Authority was established in the 1970s, its board has grown from seven members to 13. Many of those folks are elected officials with a lot of different interests. As the board has grown, it has gotten more contentious.
“It’s difficult to have 13 people who are very successful politicians used to being on top of things, and think their ideas are the best,” says Savage. “Disagreement is good — nothing good comes from a bunch of bobbleheads.”
But it’s sometimes difficult to get anything done.
And that, many people say, is because the legislative delegation has been pulling all the strings, at least since Boeing turned the place into a cash cow.
Need for diversity
The delegation appoints seven of the 13 board members.
Well, the delegation submits names and the governor has to sign off. But the local guys usually get their way.
As such, the board is made up of a lot of people friendly to the delegation. Six years ago, the delegation even passed a law to put the chairman and vice chairman on the Aviation Authority. Sen. Chip Campsen thinks it’s illegal; Limehouse has appointed a proxy while the issue is being challenged in court.
Just this week, the delegation removed Pat Waters — one of the more knowledgeable board members — and replaced him with Walter Hundley, a former lawmaker.
That’s not to say all legislators are bad — former state Rep. Ben Hagood has done an admirable job as Campsen’s proxy.
Still, Savage says the board not only needs to be smaller, it needs to be more diverse. “Count the women on the board? Finished?” he says.
There are no women on the board.
The immediate issue is the factional politics tearing apart a very important cog in Charleston’s economic machine. Limehouse said he couldn’t comment on all these charges, since there could be pending legal action here.
“I’m aware of the situation, and it’s an unfortunate situation,” Limehouse says.
Next week, the Aviation Authority is going to talk about Stevens’ charges in open meeting. Because this is an all-male board, some no doubt will try to turn this into little more than a gender issue, as if Stevens was playing victim to rough-and-tumble politics.
Which is sexist in and of itself.
Look, Stevens is no pushover. She can take it, and she can dish it out.
And that’s exactly what some of these board members are worried about.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org