Thursday, February 26, 2015

One counsel will represent aviation authority, airport CEO

TAMPA — The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board agreed during a workshop Thursday to maintain just one general counsel to represent both the board and the Tampa International Airport CEO.

But that person will be hired by the board, not the airport CEO. And the attorney can only be fired by the board, which should give whomever is hired the security in making decisions that are best for the aviation authority, without worry that bucking the CEO could lose them their job, board members said.

Longtime Aviation Authority general counsel Gigi Rechel resigned in October 2014, within days of reports that the Florida Bar Association was investigating a complaint that she may have violated the state’s Sunshine Law. The complaint alleges that she broke the law by failing to archive hundreds of text messages involving official Aviation Authority business.

According to airport officials, Sprint had deleted the text messages from Rechel’s cell phone unbeknownst to her and despite her efforts to get copies, she was unable to do so.

A total of 51 printed pages of text messages between Rechel and former board member Martin Garcia were reported automatically deleted from her account.

The Tribune obtained those texts through a public records request to Garcia. Among the texts sent from Rechel to Garcia is one dated Jan. 28, 2014 in which she texts “Joe is not totally comfortable with my board interaction...function... would prefer me be his deputy.” In a text the following day, she goes on, “Chief of staff... with no board role... I have pushed back wanting to maintain some independence... but it is an open issue between us... unresolved.”

It is that sort of discomfort board members want to avoid with a new general counsel.

Several board members said they have gotten input from county residents concerned that the former general counsel represented Lopano more than she represented the board and at times, that seemed a conflict.

“I always felt like she worked for you, Joe, and always felt there was a screening of information before coming to me,” said Board Member Victor Crist, a Hillsborough County Commissioner, speaking to Lopano. “I never felt like I had the eyes and ears I would have preferred to have” from the general counsel.

Board member Sam Rashid continued, saying he wanted a general counsel that could basically talk to the board about anything without “any impediment or coercion from management.”

“Looking at our policy, we may want to take a look at that and make it clear general counsel is hired and fired by the board, reports to the board. Make that language clear,” said Board Chairman Robert Watkins.

Lopano pushed back, if lightly, saying “the CEO, according to the law, is responsible for hiring the staff. Up until now, you’ve allowed me to hire people and you see the team we have,” which is solid, he said. “I don’t see any reason to change how we’ve operated up to now.”

Board members didn’t go for it. They did agree to have Lopano and interim general counsel David Smith look at the policy and bring possible wording changes back to the board at an upcoming meeting. But they agreed that the board should hire and when necessary, fire the general counsel.

The proposed policy changes will likely come up again on the aviation authority board agenda in March or April. After that, the board will work with Smith and Lopano to devise a plan for hiring a new attorney.

As for the complaint against Rechel for a possible violation of the Sunshine Law, it was still being reviewed by the Florida Bar Association staff as of Thursday.


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