Cue the sunshine at Airport Authority

Cue the sunshine at Airport Authority

The best narrative to come out of a recent Post-Gazette story about a proposal to expand the Allegheny County Airport Authority’s board of directors – and concomitantly mandate that five board members be appointed by the state – is what’s left to be read between the lines.

House Speaker Mike Turzai took the wraps off his legislation last week. The current nine-member board, whose members now are appointed by county Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald, would be expanded to 13 members. But four of the overall appointments would be made by the Legislature and one would be made by the governor.

Turzai’s rationale is the same one used to make a similar change to the county’s Port Authority board in 2013. That being that since a bolus of state money goes into these authorities – millions of public dollars annually — the state should have board representation.

Simply put, the proposal is about “good government,” said the speaker’s communications director.

But read between the lines and “The Great Unspoken” shouts.

The Turzai plan comes fast on the heels of a number of public policy fails at the Airport Authority. And serious questions about the economics acumen of those in charge.

Those would include questionable public subsidies for airlines at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) that, when those airlines failed – think OneJet, think WOW Air – or underperformed – think Qatar Airways’ sweetheart cargo deal — left the authority holding the bag with not much chance of recovering any money. That latter deal, by way, incentivized Qatar to fail by contract.

That exposed an authority that gave Christina Cassotis, its top official, plenary power to offer those subsidies and, apparently, of any amount. And how was the financial wherewithal of the failed airlines vetted? Who did it? What was the process? Who reviewed it?

Another recent authority fail involved the revelation that a trio of board members had a financial interest in one of the failed airlines. Worse, its solicitor defended the practice – until, for some unstated reason, the board passed a new rule prohibiting such conflicts. (And ordered by whom?)

That should have been standard policy from the get-go.

The Turzai proposal also comes as the Airport Authority begins in earnest the process of re-inventing PIT in a $1 billion-plus project. It was a project sprung on the public with very little prior input.

But Turzai’s same spokeswoman insisted to the P-G that the modernization project was not the impetus for the plan to expand the board and add state oversight.

So, were the machinations of the past few years simply too much for those representing those from which millions of public dollars are siphoned?

Is the proposal a veiled, but no less clarion, call that authorities such as the Airport Authority, are not meant to be the fiefdoms of one elected official whose appointees – nod-nod, wink-wink — do his bidding or else?

Additionally, and, again, despite denials to the contrary, does it signify that worry is growing in Harrisburg that, unchecked, more embarrassments are ahead for the Airport Authority as the massive PIT reconfiguration bows?

Mum’s been the word out of the authority and out of Fitzgerald’s office regarding the Turzai proposal. But you can bet that behind-the-scenes more than a few crisis communications sessions have been planned or even already held.

As the P-G further reported, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto put out a cryptic, fact-bereft tweet, finding the Turzai proposal doubly “interesting.”

Peduto seems to believe that the big airport project is happening at the Allegheny County Airport. Uhm, that’s in West Mifflin. How bizarre.

Good governance requires transparency. Sound public policy requires the same. There hasn’t been much of either emanating from the Allegheny County Airport Authority.

Here’s to many more rays of sunshine. Many.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).