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Charleston airport board offers Elliott Summey CEO job amid controversy

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey was selected Monday to become the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority. File/Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

One politician will replace another as the new head of the agency that oversees the state's busiest airport.

Charleston County Aviation Authority voted Monday to offer a contract to Elliott Summey to become the authority's new CEO at a salary of $290,000 a year.

Summey, son of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, is chairman of Charleston County Council.

Paul Campbell, the airport's CEO and a state senator, will keep his job until his $300,000-a-year contract ends June 30. He will then stay on as an adviser through the end of 2020 and will be paid a half-year salary during the transition. Summey's salary will not begin until July 1.

Elliott Summey

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey will become the CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority July 1. File

In a statement, Summey said he is humbled by the board's decision and looks forward to working with Campbell on a smooth transition.

"I look forward to not only help create but also implement a plan to grow Charleston International Airport and East Cooper and Johns Island airports as well," Summey said.

Summey currently is involved in commercial, industrial and medical real estate development with projects in Michigan and South Carolina. He plans to step away from his partnership in Michigan-based real estate developer SensusOne while maintaining his Summey Real Estate Advisers firm, which he says is an LLC set up for a piece of property formerly owned by his grandmother. He said the office has not been in operation for more than a year.

Summey said he would make more money continuing to be involved in the partnership with SensusOne, but he said working at the airport will give him time to stay closer to home and be with his two sons, ages 10 and 7, and wife.

He plans to continue serving on County Council until his term expires next Jan. 5.

Since the chairman of council serves as a member of the airport board, Summey said Vice Chairman Brantley Moody will now sit in on airport board meetings.

The offer to Summey has not been without controversy. While six board members voted in favor of the contract, two voted against the deal, one abstained, one was absent and another resigned before Monday's meeting. There is now an open seat on the 11-person board.

Board member Henry Fishburne resigned, saying the search should have been through a formal process of soliciting applicants and not by naming someone outright without proper vetting.

"I don’t think the board has followed the proper policies and procedures," he said. "I don’t think the board is proceeding correctly."

Henry Fishburne

Henry Fishburne resigned as a board member of Charleston County Aviation Authority Monday after six years of service. File

Fishburne also said he wants to give the governor and the Senate delegation the opportunity to appoint someone who is "really qualified" to be an airport board member.

Fishburne said he believes the Aviation Authority, along with Charleston, has matured enough that professionals from the aviation and military sector should have seats on the board. 

He wants lawmakers to restructure the board to represent Charleston's status now as an international city, saying it's time for more qualified and knowledgeable people to serve.

"We need to change the structure of the board and get highly qualified people on there," Fishburne said.

Fishburne was one of three board members nominated by local state Senate members and approved by the governor.

Three others are appointed by the House delegation. Other members include the three mayors of Mount Pleasant, Charleston and North Charleston, where the Aviation Authority operates airports, and a joint city and county appointee.

Vic Rawl

Charleston County Council member Vic Rawl makes a motion to offer a contract to Elliott Summey to become the Charleston County Aviation Authority's new CEO during the agency's meeting Monday. Brad Nettles/Staff

Fishburne was not the only board member who came out against naming a new CEO without a formal search process.

Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie voted against the move during Monday's meeting.

"I think the process of replacing the CEO of an airport of this magnitude should be fair, rigorous and widespread," Haynie said.

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He called his stand not a judgment against any person but believes the process should be open.

Will Haynie

Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie states why he was voting against the offer of a contract to Elliott Summey to become the Charleston County Aviation Authority's new CEO during the agency's meeting Monday. Brad Nettles/Staff

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg's appointee, Keith Benjamin, also voted against appointing Summey, but without comment.

After the meeting, Tecklenburg spokesman Jack O'Toole said, "The mayor has great respect for Chairman Summey, but he favored an open selection process for this position."

Board member Paul Thurmond said the 1970 law that set up the Aviation Authority does not require the agency to perform an open search for the CEO position.

"If the Legislature is so appalled by these efforts, you would expect them to step in," Thurmond said. "I see no reason they will step in with this decision."

Thurmond called Summey "capable" and "absolutely, unequivocally the right man for the job."

Thurmond added he would be disappointed with a candidate who looked good on paper and was not familiar with the community, a reference to opening the search process to applicants.

Board Chairwoman Helen Hill said the decision came down to "the best person to lead the airport in this time of growth and development."

She also told the board in a memo on Friday, "As a political entity, it is imperative we identify a candidate with a proven track record of collaborating with political entities in the greater Charleston area and beyond."

Hill called the move "quick, but not secret," saying the agency followed all of the proper meeting notification requirements.

Word first surfaced of Summey being considered for the position after the board's regular meeting on Thursday, which included a two-hour, closed-door meeting for a legal matter, but The Post and Courier also learned the CEO replacement item was also mentioned.

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell, the current Charleston County Aviation Authority CEO, will stay on the job until his contract ends June 30. He will then stay on as an advisor through the end of 2020 during a transition period when current Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey will take over as CEO. Brad Nettles/Staff

The three House and three Senate appointees are nominated by the local delegations. The governor must sign off on the appointments.

The governor's office did not respond for comment Monday on the selection of Summey to lead the airport.

Haynie said the governor called him Friday but did not try to twist his arm to vote in favor of Summey. He said McMaster ended the conversation by telling him to do what he thought was right.

"He didn't try to strong-arm me," Haynie said.

Fishburne first spoke out Sunday about the airport CEO search.

"To me, it's not about the person, but about the process," he said. 

"I strongly believe that we ought to follow the normal procedure that all governmental bodies go through for something like this," Fishburne said.

He said the board initiated a search in 2016 when Campbell was considering stepping down and received about 83 applications. That number was whittled down to 39 applications before the board decided to broaden the search for more applicants. The search was abandoned when Campbell decided to stay on.

Summey has served on County Council since 2008 and said Monday he will not seek reelection. He faces a full slate of construction projects when he begins to pilot the airport.

A $90 million, 3,005-space parking deck, along with connecting roads and landscaping around the terminal, are under construction. The garage is expected to be completed before Thanksgiving.

Waiting in the wings is the expansion of the airline ticket counter space on one side of the terminal and a third concourse on the opposite side.

In all, Charleston International will see about $305 million in slated improvements, including the parking deck and a larger fuel depot, over the next five years.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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