Plan for aviation authority grounded by lack of support
By Shannon Pettypiece
Lacking support for a proposed aviation authority, Miami-Dade County Commission Chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler withdrew her plan Tuesday and plans to regroup with its supporters to push for approval later.
As commissioners entered a third hour of heated debate on the plan to transfer day-to-day operations of the county's five airports to an appointed board, the chairwoman asked to withdraw her proposal when it appeared there was not enough votes for it to pass.
At stake was a plan to give a seven-member appointed board, with the majority of appointments going to the commissioners, responsibility for issues such as airport-related employment and contracts.
Mayor Alex Penelas, a supporter of an aviation authority, will get together with Ms. Carey-Shuler and rework the proposal to get necessary support, his office said.
"They are going to revisit it and see if they can get all the votes," Penelas spokeswoman Lynn Norman-Teck said.
The commissioner and the mayor can decide to put the item to voters, Ms. Norman-Teck said, and several community groups are considering pushing for a referendum.
A 15-member, commission-mandated board spent seven months studying other airport authorities and drafting the proposal that stalled Tuesday.
"The votes did not appear to be there, and it appeared to be defeated," said Mario Artecona, who helped create the plan. "If anything, the debate showed how close this issue is, and I think it would be in the interest of all of Miami-Dade County and the county commissioners to use their power to put this on the ballot and let the voters decide for themselves."
County commissioners, airport employees and members of the public who attended Tuesday's meeting were deeply divided, with opponents saying the proposal for an independent authority would be undemocratic and unaccountable and supporters arguing that it would give Miami International Airport a competitive edge.
Late Tuesday, Gilbert Cabrera, a spokesman for Ms. Carey-Shuler, said the chairwoman hopes that with a little tweaking, she can get Commissioner Sally Heyman, considered a swing vote, on board as a supporter of the plan.
Commissioner Heyman said during the commission meeting Tuesday that she backs the idea of an aviation authority but had several pages of amendments she wanted to introduce.
The possibility of a countywide referendum is far off, Mr. Cabrera said. He said there is no timeframe for putting the issue back on the commission's agenda.
In March 2002, a similar item went to county commissioners but was withdrawn from the agenda at the request of former county manager Steve Shiver. Before that, the commission had been scheduled to vote on the creation of an authority on the day of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which caused the issue to be deferred and eventually withdrawn.
This time, several commissioners said they had received hundreds of letters and phone calls at their offices and homes from the public, including airport employees, concerned about the creation of an authority.
Commissioner Jimmy Morales said he received 200 to 300 letters from airport employees opposing the authority. Commissioner Rebecca Sosa said she's received constant calls at home and work.
Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz was a firm opponent of the plan, saying he was elected as a guardian of public property and safety and that turning the county's airports over to an appointed board would be unwise.
"Of this seven-member board, how are they accountable?" he said. "Why do we need to step aside if the people elected us to sit here and represent them? ... There is a lot at stake here."
Commissioner Katy Sorenson said commissioners still would have the ability to alter or abolish the authority at any time with a two-thirds vote. "This would be a worthy experiment in democracy," Commissioner Sorenson said. "It has to work in order for us to continue to consider it."
While some commissioners viewed the creation of an authority as an indictment against their ability to run the airport, Mayor Penelas told the commissioners that creating such a board was about improving Miami International and giving it a competitive edge, not a power struggle.
"We are feeling the heat from Orlando, Tampa and Atlanta," Mayor Penelas said. "It is not about us, but whether there could be a better way of making this an even better airport than it already is. ... I think it is a recognition that unfortunately we have a system of government that still needs a lot of changes and a lot of modification."
Unions representing airport employees were also divided. A representative of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1,100 airport employees, said he supported the resolution, while a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said he was opposed.