A Plane Case of Quid Pro Quo
Warning to a county official in charge of Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport: Woe unto you who hurt the tender feelings of small airlines under the protection of Broward County commissioner Lori Parrish -- especially those represented by lobbyists who contribute to her election campaigns.
Parrish anointed herself the patron saint of tiny airlines at the commission's public hearing on the county budget last month. For the new budget, the Department of Aviation had proposed charging airlines 41 percent higher rent at the terminals, to help pay for airport expansion. That was part of an overall 19 percent hike in airport charges, including gate and landing fees. The increases had already been approved by the major airlines that have long-term contracts with the airport. At a budget workshop in August, none of the commissioners objected. And not one of the noncontracting, smaller airlines, which don't get to vote on rates, complained to the county after being notified on September 3.
At the hearing on September 28, the commission was expected to give routine approval to this and hundreds of other provisions in the laboriously crafted, $1.9 billion budget. But suddenly, out of nowhere, Saint Lori, Protector of Small Airlines, roared into action.
"Suppose you got 25 days' notice of a 37 percent [sic] increase in your household budget," she cried. "Or you run a business and you get 25 days' notice that you must pass along a 37 percent increase to your customers. It's impossible to notify your customers in time and prepare new rates." In high dudgeon she moved to postpone a decision on the new fees for a week, until aviation officials met with the smaller carriers to see if they had any problems with the new schedule. "Maybe they need more time," she explained. The small carriers might have a "special set of circumstances," she worried, and "didn't get enough of a heads up to manage their budgets."
Parrish, joined by commissioners John Rodstrom and Kristin Jacobs, berated aviation director Bill Sherry for an hour over his alleged insensitivity to the small carriers, while commissioner Scott Cowan defended him.
"It's not fair," Parrish lectured. "It's not the way you do business." Getting nowhere, the commissioners deferred further discussion of the airport-fee issue until their evening session that day. Then they resumed their attacks on Sherry, who was cut off each time he tried to respond. Sherry, who took over as aviation director in July of last year and has been praised by the commissioners in the past, argued that the smaller carriers received as much notice this year as they've gotten in previous years. He also noted that, even with the rate increases, the airport costs are still the second lowest in the state -- far below West Palm Beach, Fort Myers, Orlando, and Miami.
County attorney Edward Dion finally cut off the debate with a chilling warning. If the commissioners didn't approve the rate increase immediately, he said, they would violate the county's bond covenants and jeopardize Broward's bond rating, since the county wouldn't have enough revenues to pay off the bonds. Parrish grudgingly agreed to vote for the fee hike -- but not before taking a parting shot at Sherry. "It was a poor decision not to notify all of the [airlines]," she said. "Bill couldn't be that dumb to do that again next year." Seeing the look on Sherry's face, she tried to dig herself out. "I'm not trying to make you mad; it's kind of a joke."
This type of sniping and second-guessing by commissioners is part of what prompted Broward-area state legislators to push for an elected mayor to run the county, which the public will vote on in March. "What's happening with the present commission form of government is a lot of micromanagement," says Sen. Skip Campbell (D-Tamarac). Other critics contend that this is partly to blame for the departure this year of several respected Broward department heads, including the mass-transit and environmental-services chiefs.
It's hard to imagine Parrish pressing so hard to give ordinary taxpayers extra time to help them "manage their budgets." But the small airlines have something that most deadbeat taxpayers lack -- the support of a big national corporation, Hudson General, and its politically connected lawyer-lobbyist John Milledge. Hudson General and Milledge gave at least $4000 to Parrish and her fellow commissioners for their last election campaigns, according to county records. Milledge is a major Broward Democratic Party fundraiser, who, with Parrish's support, was a top candidate last year for the position of Broward County Attorney.
Hudson General manages ground operations at the Broward airport for 12 airlines. After receiving notice of the rent increase, the company had Milledge contact the commissioners to complain, says Charles Larmony, Hudson's general manager. The combined increase for all of Hudson's customers amounted to just $25,000 a year. Hudson's beef was not that this was unreasonable, only that it received notice too late to figure the increase into its annual budget and too late to raise the October rent for its customers. Larmony met with county aviation officials on September 27 and reached an agreement that the county would provide more-advance notice of rate changes next year. Parrish, however, says she didn't know before the September 28 public hearing about the agreement, which made her Sherry-bashing performance gratuitous.
Yet she continues to insist that the airport rate hikes were "terrible." She also insists that she was not lobbied by Milledge but rather by another representative from Hudson General, whose name she can't recall.
Bill Sherry was clearly furious about how Parrish and her colleagues treated him. According to a knowledgeable source, Sherry offered his resignation to county administrator Roger Desjarlais at the end of the September 28 evening meeting -- only to withdraw it the next morning. At least two of the commissioners realized that night how upset he was.
"We talked earlier about the loss of key personnel," said commissioner Cowan, after he and his colleagues voted 6-1 (Rodstrom voted no) to approve the rate increases. "The human psyche being what it is, those things said positive about us never soothe us quite as much as those negative things tend to wound us. I'd like to tell Mr. Sherry how much I appreciate the work he's done on behalf of Broward County." Chairperson Ilene Lieberman, who had criticized Sherry earlier, chimed in, albeit a little less warmly. "Mr. Sherry, Commissioner Cowan is not alone. A number of us commended you on what you've done at the airport . No one is perfect, but we know you are a quick learner."
Parrish, however, couldn't leave well enough alone. "Bill, I disagree with [you on] this issue, but I don't disagree that you inherited the [rate notification] process. And if I had to make a motion of confidence or give you a raise, heck, I'm in a good mood."
Sherry, who is paid $114,000 a year but lacks a fixed-term contract, would not comment on whether he had offered his resignation. But he says he met individually with all seven commissioners after the meeting to discuss what happened. "The commissioners had had a long day, and I think they got tired and maybe said some things that ought not to have been said," he says. "They expressed apologies to me, and I've accepted the apologies. We all make mistakes. The matter is closed, and now we need to go on with the business of running an airport."
He chose his words carefully when asked how he gets along generally with the commissioners. "There are meetings that go well and others that have gotten tense," he said. "We deal with large issues, and when dealing with seven commissioners, each of whom has a different perspective, sometimes the conversations get rather involved and contentious."
Willie Horton, who recently left his job as Broward's director of environmental services for a similar but better-paying post with the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District, diplomatically echoed Sherry's comments. "There were challenging times with Commissioner Parrish from time to time, but that was her right. I personally have not taken offense, although at times it may get irritating." Asked how working in St. Louis compares with Broward, he said there is a big difference between working for an appointed board that focuses on sewers, and working for seven elected Broward commissioners who have conflicting agendas. "The sewer district board is extremely unified and able to work out issues in a very rapid manner. It was a little more difficult to get consensus in Broward."
Parrish denies that she and her colleagues have driven anyone off with their hectoring, attributing the departures of Horton and other department chiefs to the lure of bigger bucks. She now claims not to know that Sherry was upset and had offered to resign. "Bill's a great guy and has done an excellent job. I think he took it personally. But I was arguing on the issue. It wasn't personal."
Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address:
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.