Aviation chairman: It's urgent to fill Charleston airports director job quickly

Charleston County Aviation Authority board Chairman Andy Savage met with airport staffers Wednesday to answer questions about Sue Stevens' pending departure. Buy this photo

The Charleston County Aviation Authority's search for a new airports director will kick into high gear next week, with Chairman Andy Savage pushing to fill the job quickly.

The prominent Charleston defense lawyer already is recommending what he described as a top-notch candidate for the position.

But at least one board member sees no need to act so swiftly.

The agency will meet Tuesday morning at Charleston International Airport to begin the process of replacing Sue Stevens, who informed Savage this week she wanted to step down from her $211,140-a-year job Sept. 30.

Over the course of a two-hour meeting Tuesday, Savage said that Stevens cited verbal abuse and disrespect from at least two unidentified board members as among the reasons she's leaving. Stevens said the purpose of their private discussion was to start the process of negotiating “an amicable resolution for separation of employment.”

That didn't happen, but the transition has already begun. Stevens will be on paid leave starting Monday and has agreed to be available for consultation if necessary. Bill New, the deputy airports director, has been named as her temporary replacement.

Savage said hiring a permanent successor quickly will be critical, partly because the authority is looking to borrow $170 million to finance a two-year overhaul and expansion of its passenger terminal at Charleston International. If credit analysts have any questions about the stability of the airport's top management, that could hurt the authority's bond rating and drive up its interest payments, he said.

“It's a concern,” Savage said Thursday.

In an email message to board members late Wednesday, he sought support in his effort to “minimize” the executive recruiting process. He also asked for an opportunity “to make a recommendation for your consideration.”

Savage would not identify his proposed job candidate Thursday, saying only “it's not my uncle ... and it's not the guy who mows my lawn.”

He said in his message the board would be “most likely surprised by the attractiveness of this position to extremely well-qualified candidates and in particular, one who has national corporate management experience, political savvy, and an engaging personality who is willing to accept employment within our current budget limitations.”

Savage said he has asked this person to be available Tuesday in case the board wants to meet him or her.

“This is not someone who is being considered on a reactionary basis as this position is too critical to not be fully vetted by each of you,” he wrote.

Board member Michael Stavrinakis said in an email to Savage that his “proactive position has put us all at ease.”

But at least one authority member disagrees with the chairman's sense of urgency. Former U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett said he prefers a more measured approach to filling the position. In the meantime, he said, the authority has more than enough capable people to run its three airports without disruption.

“I think we'd do well to go slowly and look for the best person we can find,” Hartnett said Thursday. “Hopefully, it would be someone local who knows what our airport is all about.”

Savage said he has suggested to Stevens “that it would not be appropriate” for her to attend Tuesday's board meeting, but her grievances will be front and center. Employment lawyer Nancy Bloodgood, who represents the outgoing airport director and is considering litigation, has been invited and will be there.

The meeting is expected to be conducted mostly behind closed doors because it involves personnel issues. Bloodgood said in a written message to Savage on Thursday “there is no need for me to address Sue's legal or personnel issues” in private because they have been aired publicly already.

“However, there remain matters of importance that should be vetted in public so I respectfully request you place on the agenda ... an item allowing me to address the Board in open session,” she wrote.

Reach John McDermott at 937-5572.

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