Is This Any Way to Run an Airport?

After years of flying first class, politicos and lobbyists are now having their baggage inspected -- by federal agents

The commission then voted unanimously to award the contract to Sirgany/Century.

"The reality is that if they didn't use the [profit estimates] to approve Sirgany," argues an embittered airport official, "then the commission would have used some other excuse to award them the contract."

Ron Dennis, who was Terminal Newsstands's general manager in Miami, agrees. "I felt the decision was made long before I arrived," he sighs. "My God, what do you have to do? We played by the rules, our proposal was chosen by the selection committee A twice A and we still lost. I'll never be able to prove why, but obviously Sirgany is very well-connected politically with that commission."

Several members of the aviation department who were involved in the selection process echo Dennis's dismay. "You work your ass off and make recommendations, and they just throw them out the window," says one airport official. "And you might not mind so much if they were changing things for the right reasons. But they're not. It's not what you do right, it's what you do politically that makes things move out here."

Former aviation director Dick Judy says such strong feelings and resentment are to be expected. "What business is it of a commissioner, anyway, who gets a restaurant or a concessions agreement?" he asks. "They should establish policy, but the decisions about who gets which contract should be done in an atmosphere of impartiality and fairness. When commissioners become so directly involved, that leads to all forms of corruption."

Today neither Penelas nor Hawkins says they remember the issues or details surrounding the newsstand agreement. And each says he can't even remember for whom he voted. "There have been a thousand airport deals since I've been a commissioner," Hawkins shrugs.

Penelas bristles at the suggestion that his friendship with Christopher Korge may have affected his selection of Sirgany. "I know Chris Korge very well. That's something I've never denied," he says. "And I've voted against Chris Korge on many occasions. I guess you can pick any decision and claim that it was politically motivated. And the public has the right to assume whatever it wants. But politics doesn't play a role in any of my decisions. I try to make the best decision I can based on the circumstances."

As for Sirgany/Century, only time will tell if its selection will indeed be a good deal for the citizens of Dade County. It certainly hasn't been a blessing for the people who work the newsstands. While Sirgany/Century did maintain all of Terminal Newsstands's employees, the company slashed wages and required newly hired workers to contribute more for the same medical benefits.

And what about those big profits Sirgany/Century said it would return to the county? Commissioner Penelas and the others shouldn't count on them. County officials are projecting that in the company's first full year of operation, it will fall short of its county-profit estimate by half a million dollars.

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