A deal that shouldn't fly

You can tell how crooked the airport authority deal is by the indecent haste with which it is being rushed through the Legislature. Decent, serious policy initiatives are commonly debated for weeks and months, with time for hearings, amendments, careful consideration and comment from the general public, whom the lawmakers allegedly serve.

Not this time. Barely a week after the two fading bosses of Michigan politics announced their secret plan to steal Detroit Metropolitan Airport, it was rubber-stamped by the Michigan Senate, 26-10. This week, the Michigan House gets the bill.

Why so fast? Simple. Eventually, corruption smells so bad even some politicians can detect it. And John Engler and Tank McNamara can’t risk that. For even if the bill passes, unless two-thirds of the lawmakers in both houses approve this turkey, the next governor and the next county executive will get to appoint the board members, not these two lame ducks.

If we have to swallow this bill, it would certainly be better to give the new team the right to run things. But passing it by any margin still means the airport authority would be run by the governor and the county boss, with the elected county commissioners essentially cut out of the action.

I don’t like that at all.

What is really outrageous is the idea that McNamara, who is leaving office in January, would get to appoint four of the seven board members of the new airport authority, and that the similarly skedaddling Engler gets to name two more. (The commissioners get one nearly meaningless appointment.)

After I wrote about this last week, an insider who knew the full dimensions of the deal called to tell me it was considerably worse than I understood.

“Don’t you see that this completely institutionalizes the mismanagement and questionable practices that have been plaguing the airport for years?” says Brendan Dunleavy, the Wayne County auditor general.

“Look. The way it is now, McNamara has 40 appointees — cronies — out there who would otherwise be forced to leave office when he does. Now, they won’t have to leave at all — they’ll become permanent employees of the authority!”

And since the county executive has the right to appoint a majority of the board members, it‘ll be right back to business as usual — no-bid contracts, pals of the boss getting a piece of the action, etc. Except it could be worse than ever.


“There is no real oversight, none. The airport authority will have unprecedented power without any checks or balances,” Dunleavy says.

Huh? Hadn’t I read in the Dee-troit Free Press that a three-person “independent audit committee” would be empowered to look into any hints of hanky-panky and that, furthermore, only one of the three could be a McNamara appointee?

I was, ahem, naive.

“The so-called audit committee will consist of three members appointed by the characters who run the authority. They won’t be an independent body,” Dunleavy says.

How will they get the information they will supposedly review? From the single internal auditor provided for in the airport authority bill. From a person, that is, who will be appointed by the CEO of the airport authority — and who owes his or her job to that same CEO. Might as well have expected Rose Mary Woods to blow the whistle on Tricky Dick while she was his secretary during Watergate.

“One can safely assume that the internal auditor’s loyalty will be with his boss, not with the board ... especially since any independent reports prepared without the CEO’s approval could cost the auditor his or her job,” Dunleavy says.

That means the board members will likely be served cream of pap, give it a cursory inspection, and pronounce that all’s running well at the best of all possible airport authorities. The good times will roll for McNamara’s Band, and the same contracting practices that made the old airport the mess it is today will happily be translated to everything connected with the spanking new Edward McNamara terminal.

By the way, there is a limit. True, the airport authority can do whatever it wants without oversight. But it can only enter into exclusive contracts, leases, franchises, etc., for no longer than 50 years! Good luck fixing things in 2052, comrades.

That is, unless, by some miracle, somebody heads this monster off this week. Even getting a third of the house members to say no would at least prevent the two chief leeches from burrowing their big bald heads into the airport for eternity, because their successors would appoint the authority board members.

Incidentally, you might wonder why Engler is hot for this bill. He won’t control the airport, and he’s not known for doing things to help Democrats.

Simple: There’s a payback in the works, a second bill in the wings, designed to give Big John control of the highly desirable underdeveloped land around Detroit Metropolitan Airport, by creating something called the aeropark development authority.

Word is that Engler and McNamara will get to name an equal number of board members — but that Florida Ed has secretly agreed to appoint one of Johnny’s homeys, effectively giving His Rotundity control of the aeropark development authority. They’ve slowed down this bill, introduced by Engler capo and State Sen. Loren Bennett (R- Airport Suburbs), for appearances’ sake.

But they stand ready to ram it to us once the other airport deal is done. Want proof? Read the bill (Senate 1130), which in a few hundred short words gives away the store, not to mention the “use of revenues collected and received by the authority.”

This week may be your only shot at stopping ’em. By the way, if you have any doubt that the Engler-McNamara Airport Authority is a bad thing, here’s the clincher:

Northwest Airlines is in favor of it. Get your legislator on the phone, now.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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