Airport board could delay its elections

Charleston International Airport is preparing to upgrade and remodel the terminal to facilitate the growing number of travelers that will pass through it.. ( Leroy Burnell/postandcourier.com/6/19/2012 )

The normally mundane election of officers for the Charleston County Aviation Authority could be turned on its head today and create more acrimony on the panel that runs the state’s busiest airport.

The airport board’s agenda calling for the elections, an annual September ritual since 1970 and mandated by the organization’s bylaws, includes a move to push the election back to January.

If successful, it means the current slate of officers, including Chairman Chip Limehouse, would remain in place until at least after the holidays.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey made the request, a move airport insiders say is a compromise to allow Limehouse to remain in power so he can see the first shovel of dirt turned on Charleston International Airport’s $150 million terminal overhaul under his tenure.

The $18.2 million ramp revamp will start in October, while the first phase on the terminal will kick off in November with construction of a new rental-car pavilion.

Limehouse, who recently was criticized for trying to have the airport’s executive director report directly to him, said Wednesday he will be happy with whatever the board decides.

“I have done all of the hard work to bring that to fruition,” Limehouse said of the airport project. “Whether I announce it or someone else announces it is not material to me. Most of the heavy lifting has been done.”

The terminal makeover faces a lawsuit by the second-place bidder, Holder Construction Co. of Atlanta and its local partners. They claim the authority botched the selection process. The case is now in circuit court.

Limehouse’s position on the board also faces a lawsuit, claiming his appointment is unconstitutional. A hearing on that matter is set for Oct. 22.

Limehouse said he believes he would be re-elected chairman if the vote is taken today.

The state lawmaker oversees the board that has seen its profile rise in recent years with Boeing Co. as a major tenant, the landing of low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways, and a 30 percent jump in passenger traffic.

Summey said he called for moving the elections to January because several local municipalities, including North Charleston, have moved their elections to November, so those elected take office in January. The move, he said, is meant to bring the airport board’s election in line with those of municipalities.

“It makes sense to start at the beginning of the calendar year,” Summey said.

He also said the airport board is working through contracts for potential development of airport property, and it needs continuity in leadership.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Billy Swails will support the move too, saying, “We don’t need to change leadership now. We have some pretty big decisions to make by the end of the year.”

He declined to say what those were, but concurred with Summey about the development of airport property.

Not everyone is happy with the proposal.

Board member Pat Waters said it was just putting off the inevitable.

“I don’t see any justification for delaying the election other than self-serving one individual,” Waters said. “What does that accomplish? What more damage can be done?”

In a memo to board members, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley urged the board to elect officers today “as the current bylaws require.”

Riley, who will be absent but has directed his proxy, Hernan Pena, to vote in his place, also said he believes the chairman should be a non-elected official, because the courts could eventually decide that the chairman and vice chairman of the legislative delegation are seated unconstitutionally.

Limehouse is chairman of the delegation as well as the authority.

“This would certainly raise questions about all of the documents signed and other actions taken,” Riley said.

Board member Michael Stavrinakis said Limehouse has not asked for his support or given him a reason to keep him as chairman. He said if others believe it is in the best interest of the board to delay the election, then he might go along with it.

Charleston County Council Chairman Teddie Pryor, former Judge Larry Richter and attorney Ben Hagood, who serves as proxy for Sen. Chip Campsen because Campsen said he believes his service on the board is likely unconstitutional, did not say how they would vote.

Former U.S. Rep. Tommy Hartnett, North Charleston police spokesman Spencer Pryor and attorney Andy Savage did not return calls for comment.

Former Aviation Authority Chairman David Jennings, a critic of Limehouse, called the move to delay today’s election vote “pathetic.”

“He will do anything to remain chairman,” Jennings said. “If you can’t win, put it off.”

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.