Ground control

May 8, 2002 at 12:00 am

There’s a whiff of junta to the new Wayne County Airport Authority. Control has been seized and the strong arm of power is being applied, but absolute legitimacy has yet to be established.

Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and Gov. John Engler met behind closed doors early this year to cut a deal; a bill reflecting their wishes was quickly rammed through the Legislature in March, ripping oversight of Detroit Metro and Willow Run airports from the county and putting it in the hands of an appointed authority.

The move was hailed by Republicans in the Legislature, which has been investigating airport operations for two years.

“This investigation,” according to a state Senate report, “has discovered a myriad of significant management problems at the airport. … The problems discovered range from an absence of clear policies for contracting (and failure to follow those policies they do have) to an almost grossly negligent lack of oversight of contracts and projects to questionable ethical practices to a haphazard accounting process.”

What puzzles some is that the man who arguably is most responsible for these problems, McNamara, is allotted the most power in shaping the course of airport management for years to come. In the deal brokered with Engler, McNamara obtained four appointments to the seven-member airport authority. The governor is allowed two appointees and the Wayne County Commission one.

For McNamara’s camp, the legislation represented the best deal the county was likely to get. In a February letter to airport employees, the man appointed by McNamara two years ago to direct airport operations, Lester Robinson, wrote, “As you know we have been fighting off a state takeover for two years now, and I believe that this bill is a great compromise.”

As one of their first actions, members of the new airport authority board appointed Robinson — a former chief of staff to McNamara — acting CEO of the revamped operation. The interim title is expected to be removed once his new contract is finalized.

Meanwhile, federal and state investigations into McNamara’s oversight of the airport are ongoing. And, despite the recent actions of the new authority board, the takeover is not complete. For the new authority to be legitimately in charge, the Federal Aviation Administration must “transfer” permission to operate the airport from the county to the authority. That change is being delayed while county commissioners press a legal challenge to the authority. The federal lawsuit, among other things, claims that creation of the authority constitutes an unconstitutional taking of a county asset worth $2 billion.

The lack of an operating permit, however, hasn’t stopped the authority and its interim CEO from acting as if they’re in full control. Last week, County Commission auditors were locked out of their offices at the airport.

For commission Chairman Ricardo Solomon, those auditors represent what rankles him most about creation of the authority. For five years, says Solomon, the commission has aggressively sought to increase its oversight role at the airport. Creation of a two-person auditing team permanently assigned to scrutinize airport contracts was to be key to eliminating cronyism and cost overruns. A widely hailed ordinance that tightly regulates purchasing policies was also instituted.

“To date,” wrote Solomon in a February letter imploring legislators to block creation of the authority, “audits conducted by the [county] Auditor General’s staff have been instrumental in identifying abusive and questionable practices. For example, the audit of parking operations identified more than $2 million in savings for the airport.”

“Had these reforms not been instituted, I would have been the first to say we needed to create an independent authority,” Solomon said in an interview with Metro Times. “But we’ve instituted numerous corrective actions.”

In his opinion, the authority structure undermines those reforms and creates new potential for corruption.

Critics also say the problem with the authority is that, once it’s created and its members appointed, the public is taken out of the equation. Until now, voters upset with airport operations always had the option of voting the politicians in control out of office. If the authority withstands the legal challenge, that will no longer be the case.

The way McNamara sees it, the concept of public oversight may be true in theory, but it rarely applies to the real world of politics. Once politicians take office, they tend to stay — no matter what.

“Look at Congress,” says McNamara, who’s held onto the county exec office since first assuming it in 1986. “People are very critical of Congress overall, but they never vote their own congressman out.”

Having an authority oversee Metro Airport is certainly the best approach, he maintains.

“It is absolutely more efficient,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

If that’s the case, why didn’t he propose creating such an authority 10 years ago?

“We had to get the new terminal constructed and opened first,” he said. “Until we got the terminal completed and functioning, there was nothing we could do with the governance issue.” The other issue, said McNamara, is the influence of campaign cash. He contends that county commissioners are fighting the authority because it will cause a major source of contributions to go dry.

“It costs money to run elections, to buy ads, to put out literature,” he said. “Creating this authority cuts off an unbelievable source of future dollars.”

Pay attention to the word future. The irony of McNamara’s argument is that no one has benefited more from the campaign cash generated from those doing business at the airport. Now, as he’s leaving office, he’s arguing that the best thing to do is lock that door. And, conveniently enough for him, the authority structure McNamara proposed allows his influence to live on long after he’s left office.

For Solomon, the big issue is the incredible power that will be handed the authority if the commission’s legal challenge is defeated in U.S. District Court. Critics argue that the authority, in essence, represents a new kind of government entity, one that will enjoy nearly all the power afforded to a county, but with none of the voter oversight. The new authority would have sweeping condemnation power, land use and zoning authority, control of about $375 million a year in investments, and control of its own police force. About the only thing it couldn’t do is levy taxes.

All this in the hands of an unpaid, part-time board. Those board members, critics point out, can enter into contracts extending as long as 50 years.

And each one of the seven-member board can hold up to 15 percent of any airport related enterprise. Matt Resch, a spokesperson for Gov. Engler, said that provision was put in place to limit the amount of personal gain any board member or their family might realize. But according to Ben Washburn, legal counsel to the County Commission, it is conceivable that members of the authority board could band together and create a company doing airport business and then issue contracts or sell property to themselves, so long as each gets an equal share.

Resch called that interpretation a stretch.

But fears of insider dealing, coupled with a lack of oversight, are motivation enough to keep Solomon and his fellow commissioners battling the authority. The other way to look at it is through the lens provided by McNamara, who says what this boils down to is all about ego, and commissioners struggling to gain power and all the benefits that come with it.

Either way, the crafty old pol is predicting they won’t have much success. Pointing to Engler’s takeover of the Detroit Public School system as evidence, McNamara was unambiguous in his assessment of the situation.

“The state,” he said, “can do whatever it wants."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]