Tussle over Virginia seat on airports board

June 20, 2012

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s board of directors met Wednesday amid continuing questions over who represents Virginia on the board that oversees area airports and the multibillion-dollar Silver Line Metrorail project.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) last week removed Denny Martire, the only member of the board with ties to organized labor, and replaced him with McLean businesswoman Caren Merrick. Martire filed suit in federal court in the District seeking to block the governor’s action, saying it was politically motivated.

Martire and Merrick attended Wednesday’s meeting, but they were excluded from a closed board session in which members discussed their fate. Neither was allowed to vote on issues before the board.

MWAA officials said they have filed a lawsuit in Fairfax County Circuit Court seeking clarification. Board Chairman Michael A. Curto affirmed that decision during the board’s open session.

“It’s our clear desire to have a quick and definitive answer,” he said.


A worker uses a backhoe to excavate dirt as work continues to build a matching retaining wall, as seen on the right, at the Tysons Corner Seven Central Station on the Silver Line project. (Nikki Kahn/THE WASHINGTON POST)

McDonnell was not pleased with the board’s decision.

“MWAA has been informed clearly and unequivocally that Mr. Martire’s tenure has been terminated and that he has no authority to continue on the MWAA board,” McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said in a prepared statement.

McDonnell’s effort to oust Martire, an official with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, was the latest in a series of political battles that have consumed the agency and raised questions over whether the second phase of the $6 billion rail project will be built as scheduled.

Earlier, McDonnell threatened to withhold $150 million in funding for the project unless board members deleted a project labor agreement — a union-friendly provision. Board members voted 11 to 1 to delete the provision.

Martire, who was appointed by McDonnell’s Democratic predecessor Timothy M. Kaine, recently came under scrutiny after a federal inspector general’s report raised questions about his travel expenses, which included a $9,200 business-class plane ticket to a transportation conference in Prague.

Although Martire’s trip did not appear to violate MWAA rules, it was one of several significant expenditures flagged by federal transportation officials who have been examining MWAA operations.

McDonnell said that Martire was removed “for cause,” adding that recent headlines about his travel expenses as well as his conduct as a board member have “diminished public confidence” in his ability to serve as a board member.

“The bottom line is the governor is interfering with [the autonomy] of the board,” Martire said Wednesday. “He’s bringing politics into an independent body.”

This is at least the second time a governor has attempted to removed an MWAA board member. In 1994, then-Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder (D) attempted to remove Dan Alcorn, a Fairfax lawyer and Democratic activist, from the board. Alcorn sued, and a judge ruled in his favor.

In other business, the board approved a $150 million increase in the budget for phase one of the Silver Line project to cover additional costs associated with the movement of utilities on Route 7 and safety upgrades.

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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