Mayor Penelas vows to put creation of aviation authority in voters' hands
By Paola Iuspa
Lacking commission support to create an authority to oversee Miami-Dade County's four airports, Mayor Alex Penelas said he would seek a countywide vote on the issue in 2003.
He said he wants voters to decide whether an independent authority should govern airports now run by an aviation department under county commission control.
"I continue to support the concept of an aviation authority," the mayor said last week. "I have to decide if it is worthy taking it back to the commission or putting this issue for a referendum."
Commission Chair Barbara Carey-Shuler said she doesn't plan to "tackle this issue at the present time."
Others said they weren't surprised at the mayor's effort but don't see a pressing need for an authority.
"He has the right to do it," said Vice Chair Katy Sorenson. "But I don't see a public outcry asking for an aviation authority."
She said she doesn't think this is the time because the "aviation director is doing an excellent job. She gained the commission's respect," Ms. Sorenson said of Angela Gittens, hired in March 2001.
Ms. Gittens has a contract with the county outlining her authority, but under an independent authority would report to its board.
Currently, the aviation director and county manager make recommendations on Miami International, Tamiami, Opa-locka and Homestead General airports and the commission OKs, rejects or amends them.
Mayor Penelas said stripping aviation from politicians would improve government's image. The commission shouldn't be involved in awarding contracts and overseeing airport buying, he said, because it erodes public confidence.
The Aviation Department is currently heading a $4.8 billion project to build terminals, a runway and update technology.
Plans for independent governance have run hot and cold for years. The issue was last introduced in February, when Mr. Penelas proposed a five-member board that he and the commission would appoint for up to eight years. Commissioners sent the plan for review to a committee where it died, Mr. Penelas said.
Back then, Ms. Gittens said she was very supportive because an independent board could focus on industry challenges.
Commissioner Jimmy Morales said he would support the measure if it's re-introduced but won't lead the charge.
"I support it because it will be worthwhile to experiment... just to restore public confidence," he said. "But I will not be leading the effort because I am not convinced this is the solution."
He said he doubted Mr. Penelas would take the issue to a public vote because until now an independent aviation authority did not seem to be one of his priorities.
"It seems the commission's consensus is that Angela Gittens is doing a very good job," he said. "The commission gave her a lot of independence and power in her contract. She almost always gets what she wants."
The downside of an authority, Mr. Morales said, is that its members would be appointed. "At least if we elected officials do something wrong, the people can kick us out. With authorities, the public hardly ever knows who are behind them."