Miami-Dade commissioners will again consider path to independent aviation authority
By Paola Iuspa
The Miami-Dade County Commission chair wants to form a team of experts to design an independent aviation authority, an initiative that has circled - but never progressed - for at least six years.
Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler today (1/23) is to sponsor a plan calling for creation of an aviation committee whose members would design the structure of an authority to govern the county's four airports, now under the control of county commissioners. If commissioners support her proposal, the committee would have six months to work on the issue.
How many members this governing body would have or how powerful it would be is up to the committee to decide, Ms. Carey-Shuler said. The ultimate goal of this entity would be to run the airports more efficiently.
This is not the first time Ms. Carey-Shuler has pushed this issue. In 2000, she proposed an authority that would be semi-dependent on the commission. That plan was defeated.
This time, she says, her proposal leaves the aviation authority outline up to 13 committee members. These members would be heads of community groups, scholars and unions representatives.
Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas said last month that creating an aviation authority was a priority. The mayor submitted his own aviation authority model last year but failed to gain elected officials' support.
"His proposal did not have any input from us," Ms. Carey-Shuler said, "or from the community. It was being pushed down our throats."
In order for an independent aviation authority to be effective in overseeing Miami-Dade County's airports, proponents say, it would need to meet certain conditions. They say open meetings, prohibiting authority members from discussing airport issues in private and making it independent from the county commission are key to an authority being successful.
Elected officials, who now run the Opa-locka, Kendall-Tamiami Executive and Homestead General and Miami International airports, have discussed creating such a governing body for at least six years, but none of the plans progressed for lack of political support.
A county commissioner from 1993 to 2000, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, also a candidate for county mayor in the last election, was a strong supporter of an independent authority. He chaired a blue ribbon committee in charged of drafting a proposal that the commission never passed.
Mr. Diaz de la Portilla said he welcomes Ms. Carey-Shuler's latest move toward an aviation authority.
He said a successful authority would need members who would dedicate the time and have the expertise to oversee the day-to-day operations.
"County commissioners," he said "as elected officials representative of the people, would have a shared oversight."
Two years ago, he says, he thought an independent authority was the only solution to improve management of Miami International Airport, with a $13 billion economic impact on the local economy. Now, Mr. Diaz de la Portilla says, things have changed. The county's aviation department has a new director and the commission has gained independence from the mayor's office and was able to create its own transportation committee, which scrutinizes aviation projects and requests.
"There are more checks-and-balances measures in place," he said.
Commissioner Carey-Shuler said she would not support any authority without those same characteristics.
"I will support an entity that is accountable to the public," said Ms. Carey-Shuler, who also proposed an authority model in January 2000 that was defeated by one vote. Back then, she only supported a semi-independent group.
To some, creating a completely independent governing body from the commission has major benefits.
Stanley Bodner, president of the Greater Miami Aviation Association, said if the county restructures the airports' governance, the Miami-Dade Aviation Department would be able to refinance its bonds and save up to $500 million in lower interest rates. He said a clause in the bond documents allows refinancing only if there is a fundamental governance change.
"There are some restrictive clauses in the bond documents," he said. "By creating a new structure, they will be able to rewrite those documents" and free up the governing body from those restrictions.
Mr. Bodner, who two years ago served on a Mayor's Blue Ribbon Panel aimed at analyzing the need for an authority, said a new independent group would also prevent the county manager from telling the aviation director how to run Miami International Airport. Under the current system, the aviation director reports to the county manager, who makes recommendations to the commission.
"The county manager is ultimately responsible for all airport decisions," he said. "And Angela Gittens, the aviation director, must do as he wishes, even though such decisions may not be suitable or in compliance with FAA rules."