Despite a public outcry and a push by two commissioners, Airport Executive Director Chris Curry’s three-year contract wasn’t extended Tuesday.
Collier County commissioners also agreed the county manager should oversee the county’s three airports.
And, commissioners voted against negotiating a contract with Unison Consulting Inc., a Chicago-based aviation consulting firm, leaving the transition in the hands of County Manager Leo Ochs, who admitted he has no airport experience.
“Asking the county manager to take over the county airports is like asking an auto mechanic to do an overhaul on a 747,” Commissioner Fred Coyle said. “It just doesn’t make sense because the skills are not there.”
Coyle noted the Federal Aviation Administration gives funding to those they respect, to well-managed, fiscally responsible airports. He pointed out it was Curry who improved Immokalee Regional Airport, Everglades Airpark and Marco Island Executive Airport and brought in businesses and FAA funding.
“It is only natural that they respect him and business and grants will flow here,” Coyle said, calling the airports an economic stimulation to the county.
“It’s not right to listen to a small group of disgruntled people who do not want change.”
Before Curry brought professionalism to the airports, Coyle said, Immokalee airport was like a good ol’ boys’ club for about 40 years, with decisions handled by a few vendors.
Curry’s salary was $130,000.
“They want to keep it that way so they can run it for their own benefit. That’s the reason why it never advanced and why will never advance,” Coyle said.
During his three years, Curry landed federal grants for improvements and repairs, earning recognition by the Florida Department of Transportation, which called a Marco taxiway addition in 2011 the general aviation project of the year.
He’s leaving at a time when commissioners on Tuesday authorized nearly $13 million in FAA grants for runway improvements in Immokalee and Marco, which will undergo other improvements. That represents 90 percent of the costs, with the remainder funded by the county and state.
Commissioner Donna Fiala noted that Curry, who has worked as an aviation consultant and last managed an Indiana airport, helped get the airports out of debt after they’d relied on county funding.
“Here we have a man who is closely attuned to the FAA,” Fiala said, questioning why commissioners wanted to let him go. “I don’t know if we’ll ever find that again. Shame on us. ... What has he done wrong? Has he mismanaged the airports?”
Her question to Commission Chairwoman Georgia Hiller and commissioners Tom Henning and Tim Nance was met by silence.
“We should not let this man go,” she added.
But Nance believed Ochs was capable of overseeing airport management and said he didn’t want to go “down the same avenue again and again.”
Coyle bristled at that, contending Curry brought in funding and businesses — and made the airports safer.
“We are going back to stagnation,” he said, claiming the good ol’ boys club wants that. “They would be very happy to have a stagnant airport so they can do whatever they want out there.”
Henning urged commissioners to hire a consultant, agreeing Ochs didn’t have the necessary experience, but he was outvoted.
Former Airport Advisory Board vice chairman Jim Murray, who quit with four board members this spring after their advice was ignored, predicted a “difficult situation” if Curry didn’t stay during the transition.
Curry thanked commissioners, saying he enjoyed his time with the county. But afterward, he said he plans to re-establish his consulting business, TCC Aviation, in Florida, and that other airports have expressed interest.
He questioned why commissioners in October extended his contract through September 2015, then commissioners — including newly elected Nance — rescinded that in January.
As a result, Curry is considering his legal options.
“The issue is breach of contract,” Curry said, pointing out that his contract extension said he’d get five months’ severance pay if he was terminated or fired, neither of which occurred.
“As far as I believe, I have a valid contract until 2015,” Curry said, pointing out that three lawyers offered to help.
“The board’s position was that they rescinded that contract. I have some issues with that.”