Airport boss finalist list has one name
The Grand Junction Regional Airport Authority has all but named a new manager for the facility, but it’s not without some controversy, at least for some.
Earlier this week, the authority released a finalist list of one person to replace the last airport manager, Rex Tippetts, who was fired late last year amid a federal investigation into goings-on there.
That person, Benjamin Johnson, currently oversees security at the airport.
His nomination, which is to be discussed by the authority board later this month, has become controversial not only because his name is the only one on the list, but also because he served on the four-person search committee looking for a new manager.
Tom Frishe, the at-large appointee to the authority board who headed that panel, said there’s nothing amiss about it at all.
After receiving 64 applications from around the nation and conducting seven interviews, the committee determined that none were exactly what they wanted, Frishe said.
“There was only one finalist because he was the only one who was qualified,” Frishe said. “The bad stuff at the airport has already taken place, now it’s a matter of rebuilding, and Mr. Johnson is very familiar with the airport. He has the credentials to operate the airport, he’s been here for quite some time, and his personality fits with the issues that confront the airport right now.”
The authority is scheduled to discuss Johnson as the sole finalist at its next meeting Aug. 19. But before that happens, some members of the Grand Junction City Council want to talk about how Johnson was chosen and why only one person made the finalist list.
Two council members, Duncan McArthur and Sam Susuras, questioned the process in general and Johnson’s selection specifically.
“From what I understand of the selection process, ... it’s a concern,” McArthur said at Wednesday’s City Council meeting. “It’s not my intent to necessarily second-guess the decisions by boards and commissions, but if we have a concern, I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t state them.”
The council appoints three of the seven members of the authority board, one of whom is Susuras. It plans to call those other members in for a meeting before the authority board votes on a new manager.
“I have given them my displeasure on the finalist,” Susuras said, referring to the airport board. “Right now, it’s a 6-1 vote to hire this person.”
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said she’s confident the authority will make the right decision.
“I love the direction that the airport is going in, and I think the authority is doing a fantastic job,” she said. “Clearly they must think (Johnson) has some qualifications, and he’s only a finalist. They’re still continuing to vet him, and that’s what they have to do.”
As it happens, the commissioners’ appointees to the authority have their previously planned quarterly meeting with them on Monday, and Pugliese said she will raise the matter then.
Johnson — who resigned from the search committee after those interviews were conducted and before putting in his application — said he’s fully versed on the issues that face the airport and is ready to go to work addressing them.
“The past is the past, we can’t control that,” the 35-year-old Johnson said. “We’re just looking to the future.”
The authority didn’t alert anyone that it had released the finalist list, opting instead to post it on its website on Monday.
Frishe said the authority’s attorneys told them they weren’t required to do that, but chose to do it anyway to be more transparent.
“We wanted to make sure our I’s were dotted and our T’s were crossed,” he said.
Frishe said it isn’t important that Johnson has never held the top job as airport manager before, as he does hold two certifications from the American Association of Airport Executives.
Additionally, Johnson oversees several staff workers as airport operations manager, is a certified airport security coordinator, a certified aircraft rescue firefighter and first responder, and is a pilot.
But none of that was as important as Johnson’s best qualification, Frishe said.
“He has integrity,” he said. “Ben has integrity running out of his ears.”
That was important given what happened to the airport’s last manager, Frishe said. On paper and for several years on the job, Tippetts looked good and did a lot for the facility. He had the experience and the knowledge to run the airport, Frishe said.
All that changed nearly a year ago, when FBI and U.S. Department of Transportation agents raided the authority’s offices, taking numerous financial documents with them. That investigation still is ongoing.
NATIONAL CANDIDATES DON’T MAKE THE CUT
As a result of the ongoing issues, the search committee was looking for something other than just on-paper qualifications to run a facility the size of Grand Junction’s, he said.
“Some of the guys we had interviewed were not that familiar with the rules and regulations that we have found ourselves to be encompassed with,” Frishe said. “Specifically security issues and TSA (Transportation Security Administration) stuff. We had several who couldn’t spell TSA let alone know who they were and what they do.”
He said several of the applicants worked at or operated general aviation airports, which don’t have TSA screeners. Others had worked at larger, commercial airports and had little knowledge of general aviation issues. All were from East Coast or Midwest states.
“We were really divided on some,” Frishe said. “One guy looks really good, then you realize he doesn’t know what a Cessna 172 is. Another knows everything about security at a major airport, but he doesn’t know how Grand Junction works.”
As a result of those interviews, Frishe said he and other committee members encouraged Johnson to apply.
“We thought Ben was the most appropriate person before we even started the (interview) process,” Frishe said.
Dave Krogman, general manager of West Star Aviation who also sat on the search committee, said he and other airport tenants support Johnson as the new manager.
“He’s very smart, intelligent, energetic,” Krogman said. “He understands our airport. It’s also good when you can promote people who have shown steadfastness. He’s a solid guy.”
Frishe said the salary range for the job will be from $100,000 a year to $160,000. Tippetts by the end of his tenure was making about $130,000 a year.
Johnson said if he gets the job, he knows he’s going into a tough situation given all that’s occurred at the airport, and the rebuilding that it needs to do to recover from it.
Still, Johnson said the board is committed to doing that, and the tenants and airport staff are all committed to helping make the facility as good as it can be.
“We’ve still got a lot of hurdles to jump over, but we’re taking them on one at a time and we’ll get through it,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of support from the FAA, and the state aeronautics board. We do have to step carefully because we don’t know what the consequences of the investigation might be, but we have a really engaged board now and we’ve got some really knowledgeable people who are helping us.”