By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
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Dellapa says it is not important for Owens to have an engineering background. His real mission at the airport will be to act as a liaison between the contractors that American Airlines will hire to build the terminal and the county. Owens will make sure, for instance, that all of the agreements American made to use minority contractors for at least 30 percent of the project are met. Critics, however, point out that construction of the new terminal hasn't even begun, and the expansion plan is currently tied up in court. Owens admits things are a bit slow right now for him. "We're just in a wait-and-see mode," he says. "We're in a holding pattern."
And how much does it cost to have Greg Owens circling the airport? Owens's annual salary is $99,000, plus a $2000 car allowance under his executive benefits package. He also brought a member of his DBED staff with him to the airport, Andrew Bennett, who has an annual salary of $68,200 as Owens's assistant.
The third member of Owens's team is Margaret Hawkins (no relation to former county commissioner Larry Hawkins). She was working for County Commissioner Dennis Moss before transferring to aviation as a contract compliance specialist. Once again, as is the case with many commission staff alumni, the normal hiring practices were waived; she was brought in at a salary well above that of her fellow airport contract compliance specialists. Starting salary is normally $29,000 a year. Hawkins makes more than $55,000.
Naomi Nixon, the aviation department's director of marketing and trade development, had a hard time believing her name was on a list of employees that New Times was reviewing to see if they received their job as a result of political or personal connections. "This just seems so unfair," she says.
There are several reasons why Nixon's name came up in interview after interview that New Times conducted with aviation department employees. First, no one else was interviewed for the position she now holds. It was never publicly advertised, and no other applications were solicited. Second, it currently pays $83,000 plus another $7500 in executive benefits. And third, Nixon is a friend of Gary Dellapa's wife Julianna. In 1986 the two women worked together in Washington, D.C. for Sen. Bob Graham.
Dellapa acknowledges that he first met Nixon socially, through his wife. But that had nothing to do with his decision to offer her a job, he says. "Look at her resume," Dellapa implores. Nixon's resume is indeed impressive. A bachelor's degree from Tufts University in international relations. A law degree from George Washington University. A former legislative aide to both Graham and former congressman Jim Bacchus. More recently, she was with the Florida Department of Commerce and was assigned to the Summit of the Americas conference in 1995 as a liaison with the White House.
Dellapa says that Nixon's work at the summit led him to consider hiring her. "I hit it off with her," he says. "I liked the way she thought. I thought she would make a good member of the team and I didn't think there would be anybody better, so I hired her."
Dellapa made a similar decision in the case of Yolanda Sanchez, who has a $44,000-a-year part-time job with the aviation department as director of airport fine arts. The position was created for Sanchez in December 1995; once again, no one else was interviewed or considered for the post. Sanchez is the ex-wife of one of Dellapa's close friends, Dick Slocum. "I hadn't seen her in ten years," Dellapa says. "About a year ago, she called my office and asked for an appointment to speak to me. She told my secretary she was an old friend. I didn't recognize the name Sanchez and didn't realize who she was until I saw her."
Sanchez, who has a master's degree in fine arts from Yale University, had a temporary teaching position at Florida International University and was hoping to make some additional money through part-time work, Dellapa says. "When she met with me it was just to see if there was anything she might be able to do out here," he says.
Dellapa was able to create a position for Sanchez. "We didn't have anyone on our staff who had an arts background," he says. Why is that important? According to Dellapa, a county ordinance requires that one and a half percent of all construction budgets be spent on art. The airport is currently going through a major construction phase and wanted advice on how that money should be spent. Additionally, Dellapa says, he was interested in bringing touring museum exhibits to the airport. "That is something I have always wanted to do," he says, "and Yolanda is helping us with that."
During the past few weeks, as aviation employees learned that New Times was gathering material for this story, nearly a dozen of them supplied the newspaper with lists of co-workers who they believe received their jobs through political connections. Although some of those allegations may be unfounded, motivated perhaps by the desire to embarrass or tarnish a peer, most callers seemed genuinely heartfelt in their anger and resentment at the state of affairs within the department. "I know people are retiring because of what they see," one caller explained.