Riegel: Metro Council’s hapless search for an airport director

When Metro Council member Barbara Freiberg began pushing for a national search for a new director of the Baton Rouge Metro Airport in mid-2017, it seemed like a good idea under the circumstances.

After all, the position had been vacant for nearly a year when Freiberg called for the search, and before that it had been held by the same, longtime executive for more than two decades. It was time for a fresh approach, or so the thinking went.

But you have to be careful what you wish for in Baton Rouge. Though Freiberg got her national search, after nine months and $40,000 to retain an executive search firm, the airport is still under the direction of an interim administrator and the city-parish government’s ugly underbelly has once again been exposed for all to see.

Why something so simple has proven so difficult illustrates the level of dysfunction that characterizes Baton Rouge government. It also speaks to the deep, racial divide that increasingly clouds public debate in this community and stymies meaningful change.

Freiberg, ever the optimist, is still hopeful the months of work and public dollars—albeit, from self-generated airport revenues—expended on the effort will produce a qualified director, capable of bringing new ideas about how to attract more direct air service to a regional airport in a tertiary market.

Don’t count on it.

From the get-go, the search process has been fraught with controversy—and tainted, some say, by outside influences. But it didn’t really go off the rails until July, when a search committee appointed by the Metro Council presented the council with a short list of three finalists that included two clear front runners: Austin Futch, who is white, and Derek Martin, who is black.

Both Futch and Martin got high marks from the executive search firm, ADK, that vetted the applicants. Both interviewed well, and got good reviews from the search committee. Futch, a Shreveport native who currently works in the private sector, got seven committee votes. Martin, who was unemployed at the time but has big airport experience in Detroit and New York, got six.

The council was originally scheduled to vote on a new director on July 25. But after a 20-minute hearing, during which several council members appeared confused about procedure and several others asked for more time, they voted to defer the matter for two weeks.

On Aug. 8, the council attempted to take up the matter again, but, deadlocked on a vote between Martin and Futch, deferred again. A week later, Martin dropped out because he got a job running the Erie, Pennsylvania, airport.

“I was interviewing for five different positions and Baton Rouge kept postponing,” Martin recently told Daily Report of his experience with the process. “It came to the point where it didn’t seem like they wanted to make a decision.”

That might be an understatement. On Aug. 22, with just Futch remaining, it might have seemed as though the council had an easy choice. But members deferred voting yet again, with some even raising unsubstantiated allegations about Futch’s well-vetted credentials.

As might have been expected, the vote came down largely along racial lines, with most black council members voting against Futch and most white members voting for him, though it’s worth noting that four council members were conveniently absent so it’s hard to really know who’s positioned where.

Councilman Scott Wilson reportedly accused black council members of not appointing Futch because he is white. Councilwoman Chauna Banks said her colleagues had failed to approve Martin back in July because he is black.

Ultimately, the council decided to defer the matter again—indefinitely. As of this writing, there’s no vote scheduled and the search committee that initially recommended Futch and Martin was trying to scare up enough members to meet and find a proverbial “path forward,” though it’s not as though they have any authority to do anything anyway. The ball, for now, is still in the court of the Metro Council, which is as divided on the measure as ever.

In the meantime, interim director Mike Edwards, who applied for the position earlier this year but didn’t make the short list, is emerging as a favorite for the position. His advocates are getting the word out that morale at the airport is up. The airport’s press office is busy issuing press releases that suggest business is, too. Even Banks says she might support Edwards.

Which makes you wonder what kind of horse-trading has been going on behind the scenes all along.

You also have to wonder why the Metro Council would bother to conduct and fund a national search if it wasn’t going to follow the recommendations of a respected executive search firm and its own search committee.

But then, those sorts of shenanigans help explain why the airport is mired in mediocrity—everything around here is. The same kind of feudal, internecine and racial battles that have colored this search process are the same factors that hold this city back and keep it from attracting more businesses and those desirable “creative class professionals,” which are the market factors really needed to drive airport growth and attract more direct air service.

If she had to do it over again, Freiberg says she’d push for the national search again. Given the way it’s played out, you have to wonder why she’d bother. 

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