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"Gittens stripped of $4.8 billion MIA project oversight"


 
Saturday, October 9, 2004

Manager names new head of Miami airport project
By Tania Valdemoro 
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel


Miami . Miami-Dade County Manager George M. Burgess has stripped Aviation
Director Angela Gittens of responsibility for overseeing $4.8 billion
capital improvement programs at Miami International Airport, citing a broken
relationship between Gittens and officials at American Airlines, its largest
and most influential carrier.

The county manager's decision, his second move to exercise his authority
over the popular Gittens in five months, reflects Burgess' increasing
impatience with the airport construction project, particularly the $1.5
billion expansion of the airport's north terminal, where American Airlines
operates. Its construction is at least $66 million over budget and 18 months
behind schedule.

"I'm losing my patience with this because time is money," Burgess said.

To resolve those issues, Burgess placed Assistant County Manager Carlos F.
Bonzon in charge of airport construction. Bonzon, the former director of the
Aviation Department's capital improvement program, also will search for a
new deputy director and traffic engineer.

In a strongly worded memo to Gittens on Thursday, Burgess noted that Bonzon
"is uniquely qualified" for his new assignment. "In fact, bar none, he is
the most knowledgeable individual in county government regarding the
department's [capital improvement plan]," Burgess wrote.

Gittens will continue to oversee day-to-day operations at the airport.

Burgess sent a memo to county commissioners that detailed the changes on
Thursday, only a few hours after he received a letter via Federal Express
from American Airlines, in which the company said it wanted to stop working
with the county on the construction project.

Laura Einspanier, vice president of corporate real estate at American
Airlines, wrote that the airline's relationship with the Aviation Department
had deteriorated to the point that "American Airlines is not being allowed
to effectively manage the North Terminal project on the County's behalf."

She cited the Aviation Department's delays in paying a subcontractor and its
insistence that the airline not seek bids on portions of the project until
management issues are resolved.

On Friday, Gittens fired back, saying American Airlines had mismanaged the
terminal expansion.

"They were not paying contractors, who are walking out on the project," she
said. "Frankly, I would prefer that they would focus on being our good
customer than our bad contractor."

American Airlines spokeswoman Martha Pantin said the airline still aims "to
operate a world-class facility to compete with other international
connecting hubs." But Pantin also noted that airport construction is funded
by bonds backed by airport fees, about 60 percent of which are paid by
American Airlines and American Eagle.

Pantin said that under the terms of the airline's contract with the county,
it was not responsible for any financial shortfalls. But County Commissioner
Dennis Moss said he expected all parties "to pay their fair share." If a
majority of the 13 county commissioners agree, that could set the stage for
tense sessions at County Hall.

Gittens welcomed the airline's request to sever the construction management
relationship, saying it matched her recommendation to Burgess in June that
the county assume control of the remaining work on the terminal such as
completing gates in Terminal D, building a customs and immigration hall and
finishing a train.

"We have a huge interest in getting this finished as quickly as possible,"
Gittens said.

However, Gittens said she did not understand why Burgess granted Bonzon the
authority of all construction projects.

The decision came after Miami-Dade County commissioners Moss and Bruno
Barreiro, members of the county's Aviation Committee, grilled Burgess last
week on why the project was at a stand-still, said Hilda Fernandez, the
county's communications director.

"We heard about subcontractors not getting paid, schedules not being met and
projects being delayed," Barreiro said.

However, both commissioners said they were surprised by Burgess' dressing
down of Gittens.

"When he spoke with us, he had no fully developed plan of action," Moss
said.

Burgess, who has a strained relationship with Gittens, cited "chemistry"
problems in his decision to take the project out of her hands. The county
manager said Bonzon, who will report to him, commands the respect of the
airline.

"I want somebody who's strong, decisive and can get the job done," Burgess
said. "The relationship between the airline and the aviation staff had
degraded to a level that there simply was an inability to resolve anything."

There was no pressure, however, from American Airlines to replace Gittens,
Burgess said. 

In June, Burgess placed Gittens, one of the highest-ranking black county
officials, and her staff under "management watch," citing several recruiting
problems, mistakes with contracts, security mishaps and low employee morale.


Gittens, who is under contract, said Friday that she did not know if her job
was in jeopardy.


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