After midair bailout, power group revs up for new takeoff
By Michael Lewis
Leaders of a bid to get a countywide aviation authority who clipped their own wings midflight vow they'll try again to reform airport governance. And this time, they say, they'll seek a heftier governing body farther from the county's clutches.
The Miami Business Forum, successor to Miami's powerful Non-Group, is staking its reputation on airport reform after abruptly halting a drive in June to create an aviation authority.
When the forum pulled the flying carpet out from under supporters who had signed petitions and backed the authority to catcalls from county commissioners, forum leaders said they were trying to protect a bond issue on the Nov. 2 ballot. Seeking to wrest airports from commissioners at the same time they wanted commissioners to pilot $2.9 billion in capital spending, forum leaders said, was sending a mixed signal.
Weak as that argument is, a new effort to improve governance of our bread-and-butter economic generator is strongly welcomed.
Forum Chairman Jorge Hernandez-Toraño and Executive Director Mario Artecona said last week that forum members agree that their priority is to improve aviation, now under county commission control.
They cited an Aug. 9 county grand jury report calling for an independent authority. "The sole impediment thus far to the creation of an aviation authority has been the Board of County Commissioners," the report says.
The jury cited lack of confidence in government. The forum focuses on massive contracts that touch commission hands as reason to separate aviation from other government.
Others talk about third-rate terminals and scandals ranging from crime to mismanaged contracts as reasons to boot the commission out of the cockpit.
There are even more compelling reasons. Airlines are in turmoil, with major carriers clinging to life by their fingernails. Industry patterns have changed: Hub-and-spoke carriers are fleeing to airports where landing fees and other costs are low, like booming Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood, instead of high-cost places like Miami. And the new low-cost carriers that haul much larger percentages of passengers find costs too high to come here at all.
As we build a $4.8 billion airport expansion to handle more passengers, air traffic shrinks, to the peril of the community.
As the county commits to debt to build a massive airport, declining passenger loads and a flight of airlines to other airports or to the graveyard of aviation history might mean bonds could be repaid only by raising costs to airlines so much that more would flee, creating a spiral of departures followed by rising costs followed by departures - leaving the airport unable to repay bonds and Miami without the air service to support a world-class city.
Ask our lynchpin visitor industry if there is cause for grave concern - and rapid action.
A single-purpose board could focus on improving Miami International Airport, physically and fiscally. Overloaded commissioners, who focus on what benefits neighborhoods to the detriment of broader county needs, are the wrong people to oversee airport needs - not because they are necessarily dishonest or incapable, but because their hands are too full.
The fact that commissioners become obsessive over contracts that should be the province of an aviation director exacerbates problems. So does their senseless ban on using Opa-locka airport for commercial aviation.
And, to be honest, our present crop of meddling and shortsighted commissioners would be the last group we would choose to oversee a country landing strip, much less a major global airport.
The forum's leaders won't necessarily seek an authority. They might be content with procurement reform initiated by the commission itself.
We're more likely to get 3 feet of snow next July.
So when commissioners decline to yield contracts that let them tinker with billions of dollars - contracts heavily lobbied by dozens of "friends" - forum leaders say they'll act.
Last time, they tried for a namby-pamby authority, an effort they characterize as conciliatory to commissioners. It had as many teeth as your 99-year-old grandpa but wasn't as strong. Commissioners would have been in control behind the scenes - and still, they berated forum leaders unmercifully.
This time, the forum leaders say, they're looking at the best-run airports in the US - all run by authorities - and want to model ours on them. They include Tampa, Orlando and Detroit. Their new version would shove commissioners farther from airport contract honeypots.
The forum aborted its campaign to get 4% of registered voters to petition for an authority. But if that had passed in an election, commissioners could have altered or abolished an authority within a year.
Citing the commission's current bid to overturn campaign-finance reform created by a similar drive, forum leaders would take a harder route this time. Instead of 4%, they'd seek 10% of voters in a bid for a charter amendment that commissioners could not alter.
Commissioners ignore what they don't like. Look at what they've done to the Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, created with a pledge of independence but put firmly under the commissioners' thumb as a weak puppet.
So to get 120,000 signatures to put on the ballot a charter amendment that commissioners could not overturn, Mr. Artecona estimates the forum would need $500,000 to $600,000. He and Mr. Hernandez-Toraño say they could raise it.
They plan to talk with the new mayor and commissioners after the election to persuade them to do the right thing. When that fails - because it will - the next step would be to get forum members to approve and fund action by March, build coalitions throughout the community and move to get the plan on the ballot next year.
They haven't sketched an authority, hoping county government will do the right thing first. But if they do go for an authority, they expect it to be stronger than the compromise they withdrew.
Commissioners scorned the first version. This time, they'll be apoplectic because any reasonable plan would shove them farther from the Miami International Airport goldmine than would the weak plans at which they have turned up their noses.
The forum can't afford to fail. And it can't bail out again and leave supporters hanging.
First, the community desperately needs a licensed pilot to land tailspinning commercial aviation, which carries on its fragile wings our vital tourism and import-export industries. Even competent and committed commissioners in this massive county couldn't do the job adequately - and our present commission is known for neither competence nor commitment.
Second, like the county as a whole, the Miami Business Forum desperately needs a victory. Bailing out in midair in its only visible community project sullied the forum's reputation.
No doubt, an authority has far more chance to aid aviation than a multipurpose county government. Now, as an aviation crisis hits home, is the right time to change pilots.