Charleston airports director quitting, citing verbal abuse, disrespect from board members
The director of Charleston International Airport is accelerating her plans to resign and is now considering legal action, saying at least two members of the board she reports to have been “verbally abusive” and “disrespectful” to her for an extended period.
Letter from Aviation Authority chairman
I am distressed and disappointed to advise you that following our congenial and productive meeting today in which the goals and aspirations of the Board were furthered, I was asked by the Director to meet with her and her attorney. Our conference lasted approximately 2 hours during which I received a report of the Director's grievances, particularly her perception that her hard work, diligence and accomplishments have not been appreciated by our Board, and further that she has been treated disrespectfully and verbally abused by a minority membership of the Board.
Frankly, I was shocked. I told our Director that I felt a majority of the Board and particularly the Chairman did our best to acknowledge her outstanding performance and achievements. During her 26 years of service to the public that we represent, and especially under her leadership as Director, the Authority has achieved much success. Despite my enthusiastic appreciation and confidence in her, and despite my request both as your Chairman as well as personally, she has declined to reconsider her decision to separate from the Authority effective September 30, 2013.
I do not anticipate, nor should you, a reconsideration of her decision. Accordingly, I have asked our counsel to immediately research the consequences of this unanticipated notice of separation as it may apply to the funding for our terminal redevelopment project.
It is my intention to report to you the details of her decision, as well as the potential consequences to the Authority, and what steps I anticipate taking to protect the public's interest in the administration of the duties and responsibilities of her office. The Director's separation notice creates an unexpected challenge, but as I have often expressed, I am confident that the members of this Board will respond in a manner that is consistent with the best interest of the public.
I am calling for a special meeting of the Board to consider the implications of this separation on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Your availability to attend the meeting next Tuesday is extremely important both to me and to the public. I look forward to receiving input from all the members of the Board regarding how best to manage this unexpected change in circumstances. Although the meeting scheduled for next week will be noticed as an Executive Session, it is my hope that matters of such importance to the public will be fully vetted in a public arena. That choice is one that our Director must make, but I expect her decision will be made with the advice and recommendation of her counsel.
Earlier today, my intended communication with each of you was to talk of how fortunate our constituents are to have you on this Board which led to the decision made today to move forward with the redevelopment project in a manner that will ensure construction, completion within our budget constraints, on time, with a quality project that the public deserves. I want to acknowledge and congratulate Chairman Hernan Pena and his TRIP Committee, and all members of the Board, for their input and decision.
It was not my intention to send this message this evening as I wanted to have time to reflect on the Director's notice, however, as the newspaper has been advised of this decision through unknown sources, I felt obligated to send this to each of you tonight.
Despite today's unexpected notice, I retain the highest regard for the Aviation Authority staff and for this Board. I am privileged to be your Chairman.
Sue Stevens said she will be quitting Sept. 30 after less than seven years in the $211,140-a-year job. Originally, she planned to leave in 2015, after the completion of a major overhaul and redevelopment of Charleston International.
Andy Savage, chairman
Mt. Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails, vice chairman*
Larry Richter, secretary
Spencer Pryor, treasurer
Michael Stavrinakis, assistant secretary
Pat Waters, assistant treasurer
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley*
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey*
Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor*
S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse*
S.C. Sen. George Campsen*
* Denotes members who are the Aviation Authority because of their elected offices
“That had been my intent,” she said Wednesday.
Stevens said she changed her mind “based on events over the last several years.” She declined to elaborate, and no one contacted about the issue Wednesday was willing to identify the board members in question.
“I really would like to do what's best for the Aviation Authority, including ... the airport-wide employees,” Stevens said. “This is a big family out here, and fortunately we have a great team. And I have no doubt they will continue to do a great job. This is just a new chapter for all of us.”
Stevens has hired employment lawyer Nancy Bloodgood, who also wouldn't go into details Wednesday about the alleged instances of verbal abuse and disrespect.
Bloodgood accompanied Stevens Tuesday afternoon, when Stevens went through a list of workplace grievances during a two-hour private meeting with Aviation Authority chairman Andy Savage and airport lawyer Arnold Goodstein.
“We have some serious employment issues, and I have told them there is possible litigation regarding these issues,” Bloodgood said.
Stevens said Tuesday's meeting was to begin talks about an “amicable resolution for separation of employment.” The conversation was supposed to remain confidential until after she talked with her senior managers and Bloodgood met with the Aviation Authority.
She said she still had not formally quit as of Wednesday afternoon, though she does plan to leave, effective Sept. 30. Stevens also issued a written statement, chiding her employer for disclosing her reasons for leaving in a letter.
“This is a personnel matter that I hoped could be handled in a private manner to avoid as much harm as possible to the Aviation Authority and my employees,” she said. “I am sorry that the board has chosen to discuss my employment issues publicly.”
Stevens also said her lawyer “remains available” to meet with the Aviation Authority in private.
Savage said he felt he had no choice but to disclose the issue to other board members Tuesday night, a couple of hours after The Post and Courier asked whether Stevens was quitting. In his emailed letter about the meeting, he said Stevens' perception was “that her hard work, diligence and accomplishments have not been appreciated by our board and further that she has been treated disrespectfully and verbally abused by a minority membership of the board.”
Stevens said she not aware of the letter until after it was sent.
Savage said he was “shocked” by her decision to step down, especially after a congenial and productive board meeting earlier on Tuesday with no indication of her misgivings.
“It's a tremendous loss to me personally and to the flying public in the community,” he said in an interview.
Savage, who has been chairman since January and has been seeking to reform the agency, said he's worried that the departure of his top staffer could negatively affect an upcoming $170 million bond sale that will help pay for a major upgrade at Charleston International.
Stevens' decision also could put a wrinkle in the Aviation Authority's plan to sell Boeing Co. land for the planemaker's future expansion of its North Charleston campus, he said. The Federal Aviation Administration, which must approve the deal, had raised concerns before her decision.
“This a critical time in getting the approval of FAA, and Sue has very deep contacts and relationships within the FAA that are irreplaceable,” Savage said.
He has called for a special board meeting for Tuesday to consider the potential implications of her planned resignation, which is not expected to affect normal day-to-day operations.
“We will not be long without a director,” Savage said Wednesday. “I'm not talking weeks. I'm talking days. It's important for the authority to have stability. We have to have stability in management of the facility in order to maintain our bond rating.”
At least one critic and former member of the authority said the discord reflects bigger problems with the airport panel, which is made up of elected officials and political appointees, and has been expanded in recent years.
Stevens has worked for the agency for 26 years, rising up the ranks following nearly two decades of holding down a battery of front-line and back-office management slots at Charleston International.
As director, she also has been responsible for operations at Charleston Executive Airport on Johns Island and Mount Pleasant Regional Airport.
Stevens oversaw Charleston International during a period of unprecedented growth. The airport lured Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways on her watch, and it also landed the 6,000-worker Boeing South Carolina plant as a tenant. More recently, she had been steering the airport toward the passenger terminal overhaul.
At the same time, the once low-key board that Stevens works for has become increasingly politicized, said Waring Howe, who served on it for 12 years, including four years as chairman. That was before companies like Boeing elevated the profile and importance of the airport.
“It's altogether different now,” said Howe, an attorney who is part of a lawsuit seeking to strike down a law that gave state lawmakers two seats on the Aviation Authority.
In recent years, he said, the airport panel has gotten too large and too meddlesome. He noted that it's been “getting down in the vineyards where staff is supposed to do their work.”
“Not only does it get politicized, but it's gotten so big to become unwieldy with all various constituencies,” Howe said Wednesday. “There are the legislators having whatever point of view they bring .... And then with you got the mayors of three cities. They just seem to be so disparate in their interests that, on the face of it, it would be hard to reach consent.“
David Jennings, who served as chairman when Stevens became director in 2007 and served 23 years on the board, lamented her departure. He also said he had heard of a “certain level of disrespect generally in the board meetings. I don't know who or what level, but from what I hear, there is a lack of respect toward the staff. If that is true, it is inexcusable.”
The first sign of trouble between Stevens and her bosses cropped up late last summer when S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, was the chairman. At one meeting, he interrupted Stevens and told her to be quiet while she was in the middle of explaining an airport issue.
At another meeting in September, Limehouse tried to engineer oversight of Stevens' role away from the board and to himself, The board initially agreed to the idea but later voted it down. Limehouse has not attended a meeting since January.
Most recently, at a board meeting in June, member Larry Richter called for a closed-door session without her to discuss unspecified “personnel” issues. Stevens commented in the hallway during the meeting that it was the second time she had been banished from a closed-door discussion, and she appeared unhappy.
“Never in my time on the board was the executive director excluded unless we were talking about her salary,” Jennings said. “There was no reason for her not to be there unless we were talking about her salary.”
The reason for the June closed session was so that board could discuss hiring a deputy director to oversee the terminal redevelopment.
Charleston County Councilman Elliott Summey, who sometimes sits in for his father, North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, said he was disappointed by the latest turn of events.
“The pettiness needs to stop,” he said. “The airport and the Aviation Authority are extremely important to the tri-county region.”
Mayor Summey, who has not attended many meetings this year, said Stevens did a good job, but “I don't think anybody forced her out.”
As for her feeling disrespected, he called that “part of life in administration.”
“As mayor, Lord knows, not everybody approves of everything I do,” he said. “As far as the treatment by other people, I haven't been very active in the board meetings, so I don't really know. I thought it had leveled out, quite honestly.”
Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails, who also sits on the board, said Stevens' resignation came as a “complete surprise.”
“As far as any abuse, I have not seen any of that personally myself,” Swails said. “I know it's not from my end of the table,” he said, before adding that he sits next to Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and former state Rep. Ben Hagood.
Riley said he hopes Stevens reconsiders. “She has done an outstanding job,” he said.
Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, who also is on the board, said he declined “to jump into the fray. “I'm going to leave it all to the chairman,” he said, referring to Savage.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise. Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.