Ruta Smith file photo

Seven years after Charleston County Aviation Authority handpicked one politician to run Charleston International Airport, it has picked another. The board voted Jan. 27 to hire Elliott Summey, the chairman of Charleston County Council.

Former board members, a government watchdog, and elected officials have raised questions about the sudden hire without a professional search. This includes local mayors, none of whom voted in favor of hiring Summey. Two objected to the process and the other abstained because he is Elliott’s father. One member of the Authority even resigned, hoping that lawmakers would “start changing things in the right direction.”

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In 2013, the Charleston International Airport needed a new leader and quickly. Sue Stevens, the airport’s director — a 25-year veteran of CHS’ senior management team — handed in her resignation as the airport was in the middle of massive construction updates. Along with conflicts between leaders and a board of political appointees, its chairman saw Stevens’ departure as a potentially destabilizing event that could jeopardize the airport’s bond rating.

The Aviation Authority hired state Sen. Paul Campbell (R-Berkeley), a retired Alcoa executive with experience managing commercial operations.

“There was never the intent to hire someone that was a full-time politician,” says Andy Savage, who was chairman of the Aviation Authority at the time. “The intent was: Get us through this crisis.”

“The next time around, we would do a nationwide search,” says Savage, calling the appointment a “stopgap” measure.

By all accounts, Savage says, Campbell has been a good airport executive. Charleston International has boasted record passenger traffic each of the past five years, up 13 percent year-over-year in December 2019 alone.

In 2016, the 70-year-old airport CEO told board leaders he wanted to step away. Authority minutes indicate a committee met in October 2016 to begin searching for Campbell’s successor, but there’s no mention of its work in minutes over the subsequent months.

Unsuccessful earlier search

Helen Hill, CEO of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau who was appointed to the Aviation Authority in 2014, was on the Director’s Selection Committee and says the 2016 search did not yield any viable candidates.

“We were very disappointed,” Hill says, saying that it may have been because the Charleston airport director’s salary was less than comparable airports. Campbell’s $250,000 compensation was lower than similar airports near Reno, Nev. and Providence, R.I., according to a 2019 survey for the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport District provided by Hill. After a raise last summer, Campbell now makes $300,000.

Financial constraints “could have been addressed based on the qualifications of the person coming in,” says Savage. “But to say that there wasn’t anybody qualified is just hard to swallow,” says Savage, who left the airport board in September 2015.

In a three-year contract starting July 1, Summey will be paid a salary of $290,000 with an $18,000 car allowance per year, according to documents provided by airport spokesman Spencer Pryor. Summey, who works in real estate, says the airport position will be his full-time job.

No search this time

A search was never considered to find a new CEO this time around, Hill says.

“There’s a lot of talent out there,” says Stevens, who has worked for an aviation executive search firm for the past five years.

“An airport executive director gets involved in everything from airport operations to air service development to building new facilities, financing, it’s just a very complex organization and it takes a certain set of skills,” she says. “Not to say that Charleston doesn’t have a lot of talent.”

Before she was hired as the result of a search for a new executive director in 2006, Stevens served as the Charleston airport’s deputy director and director of finance.

Stevens declined to comment on the latest leadership change.

Process questioned

Local elected officials who serve on the Aviation Authority have also called into question the decision to hire someone without a search. Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg and Mt. Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie cast the two “no” votes on the question of extending an offer to Summey. A proxy for North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey abstained, a city spokesman says.

“The mayor has all respect for Chairman Summey. He just favored an open selection process for this position,” says Tecklenburg spokesman Jack O’Toole.

“The hiring process must be right and look right,” Haynie wrote on Facebook on Jan. 27. “There should be a formal, fair and rigorous selection process.”

State Sen. Marlon Kimpson (D-Chs.) says he encouraged board members to push for a more-open selection, adding that he believes Summey is a “fine person.”

“He may be the best person for the job,” Kimpson says. “But I think what has happened is, even if he was, a cloud of impropriety has been cast and I think that’s unfortunate.”

With approval from the governor, the Charleston County legislative delegation is charged with appointing some members of the airport board, a process that Kimpson laments has resulted in a slate of political appointees with little experience in aviation.

A resignation

That lack of expertise, along with Summey’s hurried hiring, is what drove Aviation Authority Member Henry Fishburne, a former member of Charleston City Council, to resign before the vote on Jan. 27. Having voiced his concerns when members were briefed on the plan days earlier, Fishburne says he wanted to open his position so that legislators could focus on “populating the board with people that are knowledgeable and experienced in aviation.”

“I think we need to up our standards,” Fishburne says.

“This emphasis on politics rather than qualifications is a disease that has afflicted South Carolina for 350 years,” says John Crangle, a longtime state government watchdog who formerly led S.C. Common Cause.

“Politics in South Carolina is highly incestuous and this looks like some more evidence of that proposition,” Crangle says.

“Yes, it is political, but the work we do is not politics,” Hill says.

“My name doesn’t have any influence in places like Virginia or Tennessee or Oklahoma,” Summey says, responding to critics who say he’s riding his father’s coattails. “I think I’ve cut my teeth in business. Certainly I’m grateful for some of the doors he’s opened, just through life. That’s what families do.”

After sitting in as Elliott Summey’s proxy at the meeting and making the motion to hire the man he was there to represent, Charleston County Councilman Vic Rawl voted in favor of hiring his colleague. Later, he defended the optics of the situation.

“As far as a nepotism thing, nepotism is a great term to use,” Rawl says. “Except for one small problem: It’s not selected by his father, so it’s not nepotistic.”

Merriam-Webster defines nepotism simply: “Favoritism (as in appointment to a job) based on kinship.”

“People see what they want to see,” says Hill. “We chose the absolute best person for the job.”

“If you deal with nepotism as an issue, the question, of course, is whether you’re dealing with someone who has connections who is in fact capable and competent versus an idiot,” Rawl told the City Paper. “I don’t think anyone will suggest to you or anybody that Mr. Summey is an idiot.”

Summey will not seek reelection this year as part of his agreement, a stipulation Hill says was included to avoid potential conflicts of interest.