The Wimp

Gary Dellapa's retirement from MIA comes not a moment too soon

During the past three decades, Miami International Airport has had three directors: Dick Judy, Rick Elder, and Gary Dellapa.

Judy oversaw MIA during the glory days, from 1971 to 1989, and was responsible for building the airport into one of the nation's largest. Judy ruled the place as if it were his own private fiefdom. No detail escaped his notice, no contract was signed that didn't meet with his approval. County commissioners were irrelevant during his tenure.

That much power concentrated in one man's hands both corrupted Judy and made him a ripe target for the new political opportunists who emerged as county commissioners in the late Eighties. In 1989 Joe Gersten, then a freshman commissioner, led what he described as a reform movement to oust the autocratic Judy and make the airport more responsive to elected officials' concerns.

Rick Elder (1989-1993) hardly was a reformer, though. Installed by Gersten and Commissioner Larry Hawkins, Elder maintained some independence while placating those who helped him rise to power. One of his regular practices was to hold private meetings with individual commissioners. First it was just Gersten and Hawkins. When Alex Penelas and Art Teele arrived on the dais in 1990, they demanded equal time and got it.

Once these politicians began whispering into Elder's ear, along came their lobbyist friends. Elder tried to limit their influence but the attempt was futile. Complicating matters, Elder was a notorious hothead. A former fighter pilot, he screamed at people, creating a climate of fear and intimidation. Employee morale plummeted under Elder, though those loyal to him worked well together as a team and produced results.

Elder resigned in 1989 after a power struggle with American Airlines. The company was pushing for a $500-million airport expansion that would make Miami one of its premier hubs and the centerpiece of its push into Latin America. Elder believed the plans were too costly and made the county overly dependent on one airline. But a host of lobbyists pushed forward American's plan, and the county commission ultimately backed the airline.

Rather than back down, Elder resigned. He had many faults but at least he was willing to stand up for something. (In the seven years since he left, many of Elder's concerns have proven justified. The project's cost skyrocketed and the promised number of new jobs and daily flights into Miami have never been fully realized.)

If Elder allowed a handful of county commissioners to begin playing politics with the airport, then his replacement, Gary Dellapa, will be remembered as the person who opened the floodgates. He became the doormat on which politicians and lobbyists wiped their feet before stampeding onto airport grounds.

In the next few months, Dellapa will retire as Miami-Dade County aviation director, so it is a fitting time to review his tenure. The exercise also is instructive because of the current debate over how the airport should be governed, with competing proposals being offered by Penelas, county commissioners Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Pedro Reboredo, and County Manager Merrett Stierheim.

Simply stated, Gary Dellapa is the worst aviation director in this county's history. It is not so much that Dellapa is incompetent as that he is spineless. He epitomizes everything wrong with bureaucrats in Miami-Dade County. The only thing Gary Dellapa has ever cared about is his own survival. His decisions have been based on reaching retirement rather than the airport's best interests.

“He has no balls,” comments one senior airport official. “Never has and never will.”

When politicians wanted to put family members on the airport payroll, Dellapa let it happen. (Not a big surprise, since he hired lots of his own friends.) When lobbyists began bullying members of his staff, Dellapa found ways to ignore the problem. The aviation director has lost the respect of many who had welcomed him seven years ago. I've spoken to a lot of people and no one is shedding a tear over his departure.

I've also interviewed Dellapa on numerous occasions. Whenever I review my notes, I'm struck by the fact that he has an amazing ability to talk and talk and talk but say nothing. He smiles, he laughs, he shrugs, he waffles. He offers rationalizations and obfuscations. He downplays and minimizes. He ducks responsibility and refuses to hold others accountable for their actions. He is a full-throttled, unadulterated wimp. (Of course Dellapa might prefer to think of himself as a lover, not a fighter.)

His ability to hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil at the airport has been the key to his “success.” As one long-time airport official put it recently: “He's dumb as a fox.”

Take the infamous $8000 toilet seats. They were approved on Dellapa's watch. And for the longest time he defended that idiotic deal because he knew certain commissioners and their lobbyist buddies wanted it defended. Then one day the deal fell out of political favor at county hall and just like that, Dellapa appeared before the commission to say the toilet seats no longer were a good investment. The only thing that changed was the political wind; Dellapa is the type of bureaucrat who always knows which way the wind is blowing.

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