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"Editorial: The Washington airports authority's costly mistakes"
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Other People's Money
The Washington airports authority's costly mistakes
By Editorial Board
The Washington (DC) Post
THE OVERSEERS of the Washington area's main airports have made some dubious
calls in the last few years, the common element of which is profligate
spending for little or no benefit. Now comes word of another such episode -
a payment of $200,000 made last year to an unsuccessful candidate for the
top job at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. That outlay, and
the decision to create a six-figure job for a member of the authority's
board of directors who stepped down for health reasons, can only leave those
who rely on the agency's judgment scratching their heads.
The authority manages two of the busiest airports in America, the Dulles
Toll Road, used by tens of thousands of commuters daily, and construction of
Metro's Silver Line extension to Dulles airport, one of the country's
biggest public infrastructure projects. Unfortunately, its board of
directors - unlike its highly regarded professional staff - hasn't always
been up to the job.
A case in point was the bungled search last year for a chief executive. As
this page reported at the time, one leading candidate was Nathaniel P. Ford
Sr., then head of the transit authority in San Francisco. Although he lacked
experience in aviation, Mr. Ford had an impressive background as a transit
He wowed several members of the airports authority's board, at least one of
whom virtually promised Mr. Ford the job. However, his application ran
aground when it emerged that he owed the IRS and the state of California
$75,000 in unpaid taxes.
The tax problems triggered a venomous dispute among board members. One, H.R.
Crawford, who like Mr. Ford is African American, suggested that others were
racists - a groundless accusation. With tensions running high, the board
killed Mr. Ford's candidacy.
That should have been the end of an ugly episode - but it wasn't. Shortly
afterward, the board, concerned that Mr. Ford had threatened litigation,
authorized a payment to him of $200,000. That amount was greater than the
annual compensation of all but a handful of top managers at the airports
authority. It was more than half what he received in severance from the
transit agency in San Francisco, which he led for more than five years
before departing last spring. (He is now a consultant.)
>From the board's point of view, it was money well spent, to nip a lawsuit in
the bud and bury a controversy. But it's worth bearing in mind that this was
a controversy of the board's making, and a gratuitous one at that.
That's the problem with the board - its knack for self-inflicted wounds. It
has come under fire, deservedly, for its propensity to spare no expense in
catering to the interests of its members; witness the extravagant trips and
meals. And now a fresh example: As reported Tuesday by the Washington
Examiner, the authority decided to hire former board member Mame Reiley as a
$180,000-a-year "senior adviser" the day after she quit the board, citing
No one questions Ms. Reiley's experience in airport issues, but how can she
do a full-time job when her health prompted her to resign from the voluntary
position of board member? In response to our query about her duties or
hours, the authority said in a statement that she is "providing valuable
counsel and assistance to MWAA's senior staff as we move forward with the
Metrorail project and other critical activities." Ms. Reiley explained to
the Examiner's Liz Essley, "I could no longer afford the volunteer time,
which was averaging anywhere from 75 to 100 hours per month."
The recurring theme is the board's exuberant generosity with other people's
money. That's no way to run things, or to cultivate the trust it so badly
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