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Gilbreth column: Maneuvers that put Elliott Summey top of political heap

Charleston County Council Chairman Elliott Summey (copy) (copy)

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

There’s no question that politics is an art. Either one is born with political talent or not, and I question whether one born without talent can develop it to a sufficient extent to amount to anything.

Those of us who know politicians realize most of them have been political in some way or other their entire lives, whether they realized it or not. And there are others like Dr. Jim Edwards who, as a successful and ostensibly apolitical oral surgeon, determined that he had to do something at mid-life to make a political difference and began a meteoric rise to governor of South Carolina, later U.S. secretary of energy under President Ronald Reagan and then president of Medical University of South Carolina.

My father (somewhat in jest—I think) used to say that he could not have gone into politics because “It’s a dirty business.” In addition to glad-handing and schmoozing, political aspirants somehow need to state their views with enough vagueness to allow forgivable wiggle room if things don’t go completely according to plan. That’s where the talent comes in.

Factor in the required amount of thick skin, an ability to laugh off, deflect and artfully belittle the attacks that always come with the territory (some of which may be slanderous, deliberately hurtful or dishonest), combined with the necessary willingness to mete out some of the same, and you have what is known as a natural politician.

Some have it and love the game — others don’t — a game that further involves the art of deal-making. Which brings us to the subject of that single individual who may now be the most powerful politician in Charleston County: Elliott Summey.

The appointment of Mr. Summey, chairman of Charleston County Council, as the Charleston International Airport’s new CEO (effective 1 July, 2020) for the impressive salary of $290,000 annually (not including a $1,500 monthly car allowance) has raised concerns and eyebrows over his relative lack of qualifications, the amount of money involved, nepotistic connections and inside deal-making that facilitated the arrangement. (Full disclosure: I have an inside deal myself as a family member with ownership in The Post and Courier’s parent company, yet I can tell you that you don’t want me running the business.)

As has been reported and editorialized on in The Post and Courier, Summey’s supporters on the Charleston County Aviation Authority Board said they didn’t have to look further than their noses to find the right guy. He was sitting right there on the board, occupying a seat as a designated representative of county council. With his experience in real estate, familiarity with the airport’s expansion plans and deep connections in state and local politics, Summey’s qualifications met the bar for those on the Charleston County Aviation Authority Board who voted for him, including Helen Hill (Chair of the Board and CEO of Explore Charleston), Charles Salmonsen, Jerome Heyward, Ravi Sanyal, Charleston County Councilman Victor Rawl and former state Sen. Paul Thurmond. (The mayor of North Charleston and Elliot Summey’s father, Keith Summey, abstained from voting through a proxy.)

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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg cast a no vote through a proxy and called for an open hiring process. Will Haynie, the mayor of Mount Pleasant, voted no, saying the airport should pick a CEO only after a “fair, vigorous and widespread process.” Henry Fishburne, one of the appointees from the S.C. House and Senate, voted no and resigned in protest following the outcome of the election, citing improper procedure and failure even to consider the vetting of qualified aviation and military professionals. Attorney Walter Hundley was absent from the meeting and thus did not cast a vote.

Whereas the typical consideration for serving on the Aviation Board is about $35 per meeting and the issuance of a parking card, there has been a good deal of money floating around certain elements of the board or its surrounds for years now. Current CEO Paul Campbell is paid $300,000 annually (and will see out his contract through June of this year), having been awarded a $50,000 raise when his contract was renegotiated last year. Longtime airport counsel Arnold Goodstein earns $325,000 — more than the CEO.

In Elliott Summey’s business world where there may be less emphasis on what one knows as opposed to whom one knows, family is everything. Vic Rawl is family, so to speak, as a member of county council. Keith Summey is a very real paternal figure, and it would be nice to have a role in hand-picking someone like Jerome Heyward to sit on the aviation board — someone who further serves on North Charleston City Council and might be inclined to reward perceived courtesies with a key vote at the appropriate time.

According to The Post and Courier, Summey supporter Thurmond defended Summey’s father against an ethics allegation in 2016 and previously worked as a prosecutor in North Charleston.

Interestingly, former public information officer for the North Charleston Police Department Spencer Pryor used to sit on the aviation board, until a search last year determined that he was ideally suited to be the airport’s PR man — for $165,000, about $100,000 more than he was making at the police department.

And to think that at least four Aviation Board members knew nothing of the plans to have Mr. Summey elected CEO until January 23. Two of them were Tecklenburg and Haynie — mayors of South Carolina’s largest and fourth-largest cities. There was no search and inside arrangements appear to have facilitated the outcome. Four days later Summey’s contract was approved.

Perhaps it’s just me, but the appearance is that the aviation board is riddled with conflicts of interest, and now we have a new CEO who will (at least until the end of the year when he steps down from county council) potentially be working the purse strings of spending about $700 million to extend Interstate 526 from Savannah Highway to Johns Island, about $1.2 billion to improve the I-26 and I-526 interchanges and related projects, and roughly $200 million on capital improvements at the airport. That’s a lot of deal-making and why Elliott Summey is arguably the most powerful politician in Charleston County.

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