Airport CEO pick had host of critics in Florida

March 13, 2009

John D. Clark’s baggage has arrived at Indianapolis International Airport before he has — but it’s not the American Tourister variety.

The man nominated to be CEO of the Indianapolis Airport Authority has been a polarizing figure in Jacksonville, where he’s been CEO of the Florida city’s aviation authority since 2001.

During that time, Clark amassed a long list of critics — ranging from the city council to airport police to neighborhood residents in the path of a proposed runway extension.

Jacksonville’s alternative newspaper, Folioweekly, in November published a scathing article about Clark, painting him as a big spender with little regard for authority.

Recently named chairman of the North American division of Airports Council International, Clark has flown around the world for ACI conferences, at the airport authority’s expense.

According to the newspaper, Clark has flown to Shanghai, Brussels, Frankfort, Paris, London and Buenos Aires in the past two years, racking up expensive hotel bills, including a $726-per-night room in Buenos Aires and $582 room in Paris. His trip to the London Air Show cost the authority $10,491 and his trip to Shanghai cost $11,304.

“I’ve said on several occasions I’d be happy to write him a letter of recommendation, if it got him a job somewhere else,” said Bill Bishop, a Jacksonville architect and city councilman who helped stop Clark and the Jacksonville Aviation Authority from extending a runway into a residential area.
Hours after the Indianapolis Airport Authority announced Clark’s selection on March 10, bloggers who had “Googled” his name starting having a field day questioning the authority’s CEO pick.

Indianapolis Airport Authority President Randall Tobias said he’s well aware of published reports on Clark and of blog chatter, but that the Jacksonville airport executive has been thoroughly vetted.

Clark could not be reached for comment.

Clark was among at least a dozen candidates for the post arrived at through a search by global executive search firm Spencer Stuart and reviewed by a search committee of five airport authority board members.

Candidates ranged from airport and airline executives to those in other corners of the aviation industry.

“We performed an exhaustive check of references” on Clark, said Tobias.

“There’s kind of an old saying: If you haven’t irritated someone, you probably haven’t stretched to do your job. John has very high marks,” said Tobias, noting his recognition by peers.

Clark is chairman of the board of Airports Council International-North America, and member of the world governing board of ACI-World, whose members operate 1,679 airports in 177 counties and territories.

Tobias said Clark has broad experience in the areas sought by the Indianapolis Airport Authority. Those include attracting additional airline service and growing non-airline revenue such as retail sales. Growing non-airline revenue is important because it ultimately reduces the rents and fees paid by airlines to operate here.

Growing that revenue is critically important as the airport this year started shouldering the debt load for the new, $1.1 billion Weir Cook Terminal — roughly $40 million a year over the next 30 years.

“He (Clark) has stepped on some toes … but I am completely satisfied we hired an all-star,” Tobias added.

The airport board is to vote on Clark’s hiring March 20, though that’s expected to be a formality. Airport officials refused to disclose terms of his compensation until then.

Current airport CEO John Kish, who headed construction of the new terminal and is leaving to head a stadium construction project in Evansville, now earns $231,750.

Kish was out-earned by Clark at Jacksonville International, a smaller airport with 6 million annual passengers versus 8.2 million for Indianapolis.

Clark’s pay has long been a thorn in the side of airport critics in Jacksonville and among some city leaders. His $241,000 salary was set to increase to $253,050 in June. Even without the raise, he is the highest-paid airport official in the state, even though Jacksonville’s airport is just the fifth-largest in Florida, according to Folioweekly.

He also enjoys perks such as an $850 monthly car allowance and a $750-a-month allowance for a cell phone and business expenses. The airport authority also pays 100 percent of health insurance premiums for his family and membership dues to swanky clubs, according the report.

Money is not entirely the issue to Donald Green, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 85, which represents airport police officers in Jacksonville. He said he wants airport employees, regardless of whether they belong to the union, to be treated fairly.

The authority let go 11 non-union workers late last year for what it said were economic reasons. But Green and other union officials think Clark’s opportunity to earn a hefty bonus may have played a role.

He was entitled to a bonus of $72,300, or 30 percent of his salary, if he maintained a 30-percent operating margin and an “A” bond rating on authority debt, according to Folioweekly.

Green said the work environment has become so hostile for the police officers who provide security that they want the Jacksonville City Council to support a measure allowing them to become employees of the city’s sheriff’s department.

Green said Clark has retaliated against officers’ complaints by threatening to eliminate positions. Workplace issues have caused 10 officers of a staff of 34 to leave recently, Green said.

“Ultimately, John’s responsible,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Yet, Green credits Clark for completing a major terminal redevelopment and acknowledged he has done good things since becoming airport CEO in 2001.  

Marcus Rau, former president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, Local 2120, concurred.

Rau, who oversaw the union that represents airport mechanics and maintenance employees until February, lauded Clark for his intelligence. But Rau also criticizes Clark for employee downsizing to preserve his bonus.

Aware of Clark’s plan to move to Indianapolis, Rau wondered whether members of the airport authority here “had lost their minds.”

Jacksonville city councilman Bishop was among several on the council who fought to keep Clark from pushing the expansion of a runway from the authority’s Craig airport. He thought Clark and the authority were thumbing their nose at the city’s comprehensive land use plan.

“John is not known as a consensus-builder,” Bishop said.


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