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Editorial: Another crony gets the top job at the Charleston County Airport

Charleston International Airport

The entrance to the Charleston International Airport. Staff/file 

It’s bad enough that the Charleston County Aviation Authority has chosen a political insider with no relevant experience for its $290,000-a-year top job. Worse is that the public had no input into the decision, and little warning that it was coming.

At least the last political insider chosen for the job had extensive business experience that gave us confidence he was up to the task.

So we are gravely concerned by the Charleston County Aviation Authority’s decision Monday to make County Council Chairman Elliott Summey its next CEO.

Mr. Summey has at best minimal job qualifications: Primarily, he has served on the board by virtue of his position as council chair. The main “qualification” he has are political connections: his own position and his family’s deep political connections, which include his mayor father and several close friends and family in assorted public jobs or roles.

And it’s difficult to argue that he’s been a successful council chairman. His long tenure there has seen the protracted and incredibly costly project to extend Interstate 526, delays in designing and building a recycling center, and the failed plan to renovate the Charleston Naval Hospital. On that latter project, what passes for good news is County Council’s recent vote to, in Mr. Summey’s words, ensure that “the $33 million Naval Hospital debacle turns into a $10 million to $12 million debacle, once everything is done.”

We agree with Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, a board member who complained that the selection process lacked fairness, rigor and depth. Indeed, it was unclear the authority was going to make a CEO decision until a weekend agenda was posted for a Monday meeting that featured two words, “Contractual matters.” Why the rush and secrecy? The fact that the authority gave the minimum legal notice required under state law is hardly a consolation to members of the public who deserve a chance to raise questions or provide input.

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It should be noted this is the second time in a row the authority felt it wise to offer its top job to a local politician. By most accounts, state Sen. Paul Campbell’s seven years at the authority’s helm have seen the airport grow and prosper, perhaps because of his experience as the former regional president of the aluminum giant Alcoa. His only black mark was a 2017 DUI arrest: The charges were dismissed, but the incident was embarrassing to all involved.

Aviation Authority board member and former Charleston City Councilman Henry Fishburne resigned before Monday’s vote, saying the board did not follow proper policies by forgoing a search for a successor to Mr. Campbell, who isn’t leaving until June 30. In his parting shot, Mr. Fishburne argued the board’s members should be restructured so its members are less from the political world (Mr. Fishburne himself is a former Charleston City Councilman) and more from the aviation world.

Charleston International Airport has experienced steady growth in the number of flights and passengers, while the authority’s other airports on Johns Island and East Cooper seem to have fared well under Mr. Campbell, too. We certainly wish Mr. Summey the same level of success as his predecessor, but we wonder how much he will focus on his new job if he also maintains his current business, Summey Real Estate Advisors. He should step away from that before assuming his the role supervising the authority and its $64 million budget.

At least he has indicated he won’t seek reelection to his County Council seat in November (unlike Mr. Campbell, who continued to serve in the state Senate during his CEO tenure).

But regardless of the airport’s current health, the question arises whether the authority’s board is experienced enough in aviation matters or simply a well-connected good-old-boy network that rewards friends and rides the wave of the region’s current prosperity — and whether it can make the strategic decisions necessary to secure the future of the airport and the many interests that depend on it.

Of course, the still larger issue is whether this is the kind of cronyism voters in Charleston County are willing to accept from their elected leaders. So far, the answer would seem to be yes, absolutely.

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