Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority moves to restart CEO search

By Ann E. Marimow
Thursday, March 17, 2011; 6:29 AM

The authority that oversees the Washington region's two main airports took steps Wednesday to restart its search for a new chief executive. The board had been bitterly split regarding San Francisco transit chief Nathaniel P. Ford, whose front-running candidacy appears to be in doubt.

In advance of Wednesday's Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority board meeting and a planned vote on Ford's candidacy, the member leading the more than seven-month-long search for the authority's next chief executive resigned, and three new members were named to join the 13-member regional panel.

After the board met behind closed doors for more than an hour, authority Chairman Charles D. Snelling issued a two-sentence statement, saying that the decision had been postponed to allow new board members "to participate in the process."

It was not immediately clear whether the board would start over or just delay the decision until new members get up to speed on the details. But late Wednesday, Ford received a message from an authority representative informing him that the board had "reopened the search," according to Tom Nolan, board chairman of San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency - who was with Ford at the time - and sources familiar with the authority's plans.

Ford had been in informal negotiations for the job this month with a salary offer of at least $375,000, and was anticipating a final decision Wednesday.

But some board members for the agency, which also oversees the multibillion-dollar project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport, have had reservations about Ford's candidacy because of his personal financial troubles.

Others have been discouraged by the board's process for narrowing the list of candidates. The tense debate has included allegations from at least one board member that those opposed to the African American man were racist.

The decision to reopen the search leaves Ford in an awkward situation with his current bosses in San Francisco. Ford, who is in Washington this week for a public transit conference, did not immediately return messages asking whether he planned to remain in the running.

Nolan was critical of how the search had been handled by the airports authority. "One can only hope that they run the airports better than they do this process," Nolan said. "It's just appalling the way they are treating him."

The San Francisco agency already has had preliminary discussions about naming Ford's successor. When asked about Ford's future in San Francisco, Nolan said his board would meet Tuesday.

Ford "recognizes that this puts us in a difficult situation," Nolan said.

The turmoil at the airports authority has prompted Virginia state legislators to schedule an oversight hearing Thursday to ensure that the governing body has the capacity to manage the 23-mile Metrorail extension to Dulles, now projected to cost as much as $6.6 billion.

In other business Wednesday, a board committee deferred a preliminary vote on where the Dulles Metrorail station should be built but decided to drop one option, an underground stop leading into the main terminal, citing its high cost estimates.

That leaves an aboveground site adjacent to the north garage or an underground location beneath the hourly parking lot. The underground location would be closer to the terminal but more expensive and would not be completed until early 2017 compared with late 2016, officials said. Committee members said they decided to delay the vote to examine discrepancies between the airport authority's cost estimates and a consultant's, and to reach out to local officials.

"What I keep hearing from our partners is that they want the cheapest mode," board member Thomas M. Davis III said.

Staff writer Kafia A. Hosh contributed to this report.

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