A state Senate study committee has been evaluating Atlanta’s airport management structure and had its final meeting Thursday.
It proposed no legislation but passed a recommendation to “establish a new authority with a management structure to oversee and hold accountable the business enterprise and operations” of the airport. The structures governing the Georgia Ports Authority and the Georgia World Congress Center, with boards appointed by the governor, were cited as examples.
It’s not yet clear what exactly would be in any legislation proposed, nor if that legislation would have enough support to pass the General Assembly or get Governor-elect Brian Kemp’s signature.
State Sen. Burt Jones, the chair of the study committee said he thinks the current airport structure, with power consolidated in the City of Atlanta and its mayor, is not working.
“You’ve got basically a structural flaw,” he said.
“It’s grown to be too big of an entity and mean too much to the state and the region as a whole to be managed in a department of a municipality government and then have one elected official have the ultimate say on the operations.”
The airport has about 63,000 employees and an estimated $64.3 billion total direct and indirect economic impact on the state
“The wisdom and feel of at least the Georgia Senate is there is enough information that we found to proceed with potentially bringing forward legislation that would offer up a new structure,” Jones said.
The airport has had corruption scandals in decades past. But city representatives testified before the committee strongly disagreeing that those stories reflect the present situation.
Robert Highsmith, a lawyer representing the city called those stories “ancient history” at a meeting earlier this month.
The airport’s new general manager John Selden also testified at that previous meeting to highlight the advantages of the city-run model.
“That provides us the speed and nimbleness that enable us to continue to do the things we need to do at Hartsfield-Jackson … by not having layers and layers of organization on top of you that you have to go through to get things done,” he said.
Atlanta Councilmember Matt Westmoreland said things are run well and being improved, as evidenced by Mayor Bottoms’s new hires for the airport general manager and chief procurement officer, both of whom testified before the committee.
“The city is taking steps to fix what needs to be fixed, and I think the folks in the state Senate have taken note of that,” he said. “So I’m hopeful that over the next few weeks as we have a conversation about what direction this conversation might go in, that we see that the city is taking care of what we need to take care of and will continue to run this airport as well as we have in the past.”
Westmoreland has attended most of the study committee’s meetings. Because, he said, “I am very proud of our airport … I think the city has done a really good job at running it over the last 40 years and I want to make sure the city continues to run it in the future.”
Sen. Brandon Beach, current chairman of the transportation committee, which would handle any airport legislation, said he didn’t want the word “takeover” to be a part of the conversation.
“So whatever decisions we make going forward from a legislative standpoint, I would hope this committee and this legislative body would keep those two words in mind: customer-centric and partnership and not use the word takeover. I don’t think this should be an adversarial process.”
He commended Mayor Bottoms for announcing she would rebid some airport concessions contracts next year and said he is optimistic there could be a “win-win” scenario for the City and the state.
Sen. Valencia Seay, who represents the airport and Clayton County acknowledged the airport’s history with corruption but did not agree that that past in itself justified structural changes today.
“We have had some issues. I’m not skirting that. But one bad apple, two bad apples or three or four doesn’t spoil the whole bunch from where I sit,” she said. “Every level of government, if you peel back enough layers, you’re going to find something. And that’s just with people in general.”
Sen. Steve Gooch said he would “probably would not vote” for a proposal for the state to take away the airport from the City of Atlanta.
“But what I’m reading here today is some other kind of governance model should be looked at. But my question to [Senator Jones] … would be how do you appropriately do that without another study committee or another commission put together? Should the next step not be a joint commission with the House and the Senate to look at the governance of how it could look going forward?”
Gooch said he’s not convinced it should be a state-controlled authority, but there could be an oversight role for the state and those details need to be worked out further.
Jones said he intended to include the City and House leadership in conversations about legislation going forward. “This isn’t a recommendation that it shall be a takeover … I think we can have a partnership in this.”
Sen. Freddie Powell Sims expressed general concern about impacting the status quo at the airport, economically. “I hope that whatever is presented as policy to our legislative body does not destroy or dismantle the effective business climate that has been established in the state of Georgia,” she said. “Because it has a domino effect. It will not only affect metro Atlanta.”
“There’s plenty of good things to talk about,” Jones said of the airport’s success, “but there’s also some embarrassing things that need to be corrected and I think that’s what we’re seeking to do in the final analysis.”