The real reason Sen. Paul Campbell is the airport’s new executive director

A lot of people say state lawmakers have too much control over the airport, so what does the board do — hire a legislator to run the place.

Makes perfect sense.

Last month, Sue Stevens resigned as executive director of the Charleston International Airport, citing a hostile working environment. The trouble was legislative meddling.

See, the Charleston County legislative delegation, which is made up of the 22 state lawmakers who represent parts of the county, appoints nearly half of the 13 members of the Aviation Authority board.

That means a good number of board members are compelled to do the bidding of legislators or risk losing their seat. And some lawmakers, and their appointees, allegedly were trying to mess with the day-to-day operations at the airport.

That’s not their job. Stevens got fed up and quit.

So the solution was to hire state Sen. Paul Campbell to replace Stevens. Understandably, that has a lot of people scratching their heads.

But consider this: The board members who voted to hire Campbell were all the locally appointed guys — the mayors and county representatives. Most of the delegation’s appointees opposed the move.

In an op-ed piece last week, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called Campbell the right man at the right time.

Yeah, it’s called fighting fire with fire.

Unlimited power?

Time was, legislative delegations ran counties in this state.

It wasn’t a particularly smart practice, and it finally came to an end in the 20th century. But lawmakers still maintain a lot of local control. Local officials around the state like to say lawmakers passed home rule in the 1970s and have been trying to take it back, piece by piece, ever since.

In South Carolina, lawmakers hold considerably more power over their counties than their counterparts do in other states. Here, delegations appoint local election commissioners and members to most of the dozens of boards in the county. They even approve notary public licenses, which is bizarre.

That’s a lot of power for a bunch of $10,000 a year, part-time legislators. And although many of them have the best interests of the community at heart, others are quite comfortable throwing around their considerable weight.

Elliott Summey, vice chairman of Charleston County Council, says it’s amazing how local officials here work together without rancor. But throw in some state lawmakers, and everything gets contentious and overly political.

“They have absolutely too much power,” Summey says. “It violates home rule. Why do they need to appoint members to the CARTA board?”

Well, because they write the laws.

Political cover

One person close to the airport board says Riley and North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey got sick of all this, so they went out and got their own senator.

They won’t admit it, but truth is they hired Campbell not just because he is a smart, fair man — and a former Alcoa executive — but because lawmakers can’t push him around.

Campbell has just as much power as they do.

That’s one reason why there is such a fuss over whether Campbell should step down from his state Senate seat. Clearly, it’s not an ideal situation, but his supporters effectively argue that he needs the political clout to do the job.

“We needed to get somebody in there who is not susceptible to the politics,” says state Rep. Jim Merrill, a sensible member of the delegation.

Campbell, at 67, is not going to be there forever. The thinking is that he can get things under control at the airport while folks like Sen. Chip Campsen and Merrill try to dilute the delegation’s power there.

It won’t be easy. Earlier this year, Campsen and Sen. Larry Grooms tried to change a law that automatically appoints the delegation’s chairman and vice chairman to the airport board. State Reps. Mike Sottile and Chip Limehouse, who wrote the law, blocked their efforts.

Campsen and Grooms say they will try again, which is telling. It’s pretty bad when even the delegation thinks it has too much power.



Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com

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