The Piedmont Triad Airport Authority (PTIA) has been in the spotlight lately because it briefly changed the name of the airport to Central North Carolina International Airport, but the authority is now in the spotlight again for another reason: The Guilford County Board of Commissioners is about to make a key decision whether or not to reappoint Airport Authority Chairman Steve Showfety to the board for a fourth term.
The City of High Point has already made a change on its appointment to the Airport Authority. On Monday, Feb. 5, the High Point City Council voted unanimously to appoint former High Point Mayor Bill Bencini to the authority seat now held by Don Webb, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo in High Point. In April, when Webb’s term expires, Bencini will take over as the High Point representative on the authority.
Bencini said this week that his appointment to the position had nothing to do with Webb’s support of the airport’s name change. Bencini said he was still formulating his own view on that subject and that he didn’t want to take any position at the current time since he won’t even be joining the airport board until April. Bencini did comment that he doesn’t think that “Piedmont” or “Triad” is very informative for people in other parts of the country or the world, but he added that changing the airport’s name would take a lot of time and money.
“It’s a major undertaking to change a name like that,” he said.
While the change was approved unanimously by the authority, Showfety seemed to be the primary catalyst behind it, and if he’s off the board and no longer chairman, it could certainly take a lot of air out of the sails of the name change proposal that has already had a lot of its air taken out by the public’s reaction.
Showfety, the president of Koury Corp, has served on the Airport Authority since 2009 and been its chairman since April 2014.
A seat on the authority is a coveted position. In the past, the Board of Commissioners has had some knock down, drag out fights over who was appointed to it.
The Airport Authority calls the shots for the airport, which in many ways is a local government unto itself. Like other local governments, PTIA doesn’t pay Guilford County property taxes on its land or buildings. The State of North Carolina has granted the Airport Authority some of the same rights and powers as boards of commissioners and city councils. For instance, the authority can take on debt and make rules and regulations for the airport. It can also buy and sell land within its jurisdictional boundaries and enter into contracts with airlines and vendors. Although the airport is nearly surrounded by the City of Greensboro, it is not in the city.
The authority also oversees the airport’s $30 million budget each year.
In January, Showfety submitted his application for consideration once again for another three-year term. He wrote that he wanted time to finish some continuing initiatives that are now underway.
“The airport has been recognized as an important transportation resource since its inception in 1943,” Showfety wrote in his application for reappointment. “However as a result of deregulation of the airline industry, NAFTA and the great recession, the negative impact on the region’s core industries was devastating. The airport was clearly impacted by these events.
“The Board in recent years refocused efforts and has been working on two strategies. (1) Improve the passenger experience. (2) Become a major employment center for aviation related jobs. Significant progress is being made on both strategies … In order to maintain consistency of these strategies while closely managing the financial operations of the Authority, I would appreciate the opportunity to serve an additional term. I would invite the opportunity to discuss the details by phone. Thank You.”
Despite many county commissioners’ dissatisfaction with the way the airport’s brief name change was handled, they have very positive things to say about Showfety and the job he’s done running the Airport Authority. The airport has been a star of area economic development over the last decade and a new 800-acre megasite nearing completion is expected to draw in much more aviation and aerospace business.
No commissioner has suggested that the recent name change mishap would keep Showfety from being given another term – but some of them are pointing out that Guilford County’s policy limits members of the Airport Authority, and those on other boards and commissions, to two terms. They note that the board already made an exception to that policy for Showfety when it appointed him to a third term three years ago.
The Airport Authority has seven members with staggered three-year terms. In addition to the county’s appointment of an authority member in March, the City of Greensboro must decide who to appoint to a seat now held by Paul Mengert, the city’s current appointee.
After the name change for PTIA was announced just before Christmas, several Guilford County commissioners publicly expressed their displeasure with the process. Commissioner Justin Conrad, for instance, said he learned about the name change by reading about it on Facebook. Conrad said that was especially upsetting since the airport is in his district. Likewise, Commissioner Skip Alston said after the name change decision that the Airport Authority members need to remember who put them on that board in the first place.
The December name change, and the January motion to put the name change on hold, has called a lot of attention to the board that often operates under the radar and that publicity could lead to even more interest in the opening this time around. A Greensboro businessman who got over 6,000 names for online petition to stop the airport’s name change announced at the authority’s Tuesday, Jan. 23 meeting that he wanted to be appointed to a seat on the Airport Authority.
Retired Assistant Greensboro City Manager Wesley Reid, the former head of Guilford Metro 9-1-1, and Matthew Johnson, director of planning for the Town of Jamestown, are just two of those who have submitted their names for consideration. Some commissioners also have ideas about new people they’d like to see sitting on the board.
Guilford County Clerk to the Board Robin Keller said Guilford County does have a two-term limit on boards and commissions and has had it since 1987. She said that, when it comes to some boards, Guilford County has trouble filling the seats. In those cases, Keller said, the commissioners have been more willing to override the policy to assure that the boards and commissions have enough members.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said the policy is in place but isn’t written in stone and it can be overridden by a vote of the board. Henning said the board has made exceptions in the past.
“It’s a case by case basis,” Henning said. “If someone’s doing a really good job, why boot them out because of a policy? On the other hand, you also want new people.”
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman said the policy exists so more citizens have a chance to serve. She said that, when it comes to filling the Airport Authority seat, she wants the Board of Commissioners to abide by the term limits so other citizens get a chance to contribute to this vital authority.
“We have a policy and I’d like to see us follow the policy,” Coleman said.
Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson said, “I think it depends a lot on your qualifications.”
Branson said there’s a major push for economic development at the airport and the county has a lot riding on this decision.
Alston said he thinks that limiting appointees to two terms on boards and commissions, when others want to serve and are waiting to do so, is a good policy to follow.
Alston said he served on the City of Greensboro’s ABC board but had to give that up after reaching the time limit allowed.
“I would have loved to have stayed on there,” he said.
He added that, in some cases, people got way too many years on the Airport Authority.
“Stanley Frank served on the authority for 30 years,” Alston said
Frank joined the Board in December 1962 and served as chairman for nearly two decades, from 1972 to 1991, when he stepped down. When the authority meets, usually once a month, it does so in the Stanley Frank Board Room.
Alston also pointed to former Airport Authority Chairman Henry Isaacson as another example of someone who served more than two terms. Isaacson was on the authority from 1999 to 2014. Alston said it’s good to have new blood and fresh perspectives on boards, especially ones as important as the Airport Authority.
Alston added that the Airport Authority is a citizen’s board and those seats don’t belong to the people who are appointed to them.
“Nobody owns these positions – it’s not their positions,” he said. “We have a rule that says two three-year terms. I don’t think it’s fair to have one person monopolize that. We should go by our rules unless it’s a board where it’s hard to get people to serve – for instance, the board that oversees nursing homes. But when there is a waiting list, it’s unfair.”
Alston said that every time a seat on the Airport Authority opens up there’s a lot of interest in serving.
“It’s a highly sought after seat,” Alston said.
He added that this is a citizen oversight board and therefore a person doesn’t need any particular expertise in the field. He said he didn’t have any specialized insight into liquor distribution when he was named to the ABC Board and he added that Airport Authority members don’t have to have any special knowledge of airport operations.
“I don’t know if Steve knew a lot about airplanes when he was appointed to the board,” Alston said.
According to Alston, members of boards and commissions have to be accountable to the elected officials who appoint them, and they must maintain open lines of communication. He said the current authority clearly made a mistake by changing the airport’s name without so much as running the idea by the people who put them on the authority.
“We appoint these members,” Alston said. “When you have something major like that, that’s going to affect the whole community, then you should report back to the board. We’re in charge of the image of the county, not them. This isn’t something that affects just them. A name change should be a major event. It should have been talked about for a year or more.”
Aside from the name change question, there are plenty of other balls in the air that the authority is currently juggling. Runway renovations are beginning and there are plans for changes in the terminals. The authority is also focused on the megasite and on the final touches for the new taxiway bridge that connects the airport megasite to the runway. A new weather and plane tracking tower is also on the way.
The board, which was originally called the “Greensboro-High Point Airport Authority,” was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1942 to own and operate the airport. It was re-named the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority in 1987.
In 1985, the number of seats on the authority expanded from five to seven, with the two new seats being appointed by the Winston-Salem City Council and the Forsyth Board of Commissioners.
Two authority members must be High Point residents – with one of those appointed by the High Point City Council and the other appointed by the Guilford County Board of Commissioners. Two must be Greensboro residents, with one of those slots filled by the Greensboro City Council and the other by Guilford County commissioners. Another member must be from “Guilford County at large.” That member is also appointed by the commissioners.
One member, appointed by the Winston-Salem City Council, must live in Winston-Salem. The other member is from Forsyth County at large, appointed by the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners.
Branson said the Guilford County commissioners will talk a lot about boards and commissions appointments at the commissioners’ annual retreat on Thursday, Feb. 8 and Friday Feb. 9.