The Washington airports authority’s costly mistakes
By Editorial Board,
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 executive.
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 health reasons.
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 needs.