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Airport board debates whether to keep Ennis

Airport board debates whether to keep Ennis

Some members want to conduct national search

BY WAYNE T. PRICE
FLORIDA TODAY

At the July meeting of the Melbourne Airport Authority, more than one person suggested the word "interim" be removed from Richard Ennis' title.

In effect, they were saying the 57-year-old Ennis should be the airport's permanent executive director.

Still, the move to make Ennis permanent executive director isn't promising to be as smooth as some would think. While speaking highly of Ennis, some Airport Authority members think there needs to be a national search process.

At least four votes are needed to make Ennis executive director, and only six members of the Airport Authority are expected to attend Wednesday's meeting at which the proposal will be considered.

Whoever ends up leading Melbourne International will face some big challenges.

First, the airport is losing money, as operating expenses outstrip income revenues.

Ennis, or whoever else gets the job, is going to have to find a way to cut expenses and find new revenue streams.

Also, a recent marketing study by Atlanta-based Sabre Airline Solutions showed that more than 75 percent of local airline travelers use Orlando International Airport rather than Melbourne International.

Henry Guevara, manager of Melbourne-base Apollo Travel, a local travel agency, said the executive director needs to ensure more carriers come to the airport.

"The more we compete, the better prices we're going to get out of Melbourne," Guevara said, noting that 80 percent of his airline bookings are for Orlando International.

Other worries

Also, some worry the financial problems of some carriers, such as Delta, could disturb the number of flights smaller airports such as Melbourne International are able to offer.

"There are some real serious issues," said Titus Hall, an Airport Authority member. "We're going to have to address them sooner or later."

Melbourne International is Brevard County's only commercial airport, with a major carrier offering flights to Atlanta, Cincinnati, New York and Washington.

It served about 407,000 passengers last year. But, like many smaller airports near larger metropolitan areas, Melbourne International loses considerable traffic to the much-larger Orlando International, which offers more carriers and generally lower fares.

Ennis was earning $99,606 at the time of his appointment as interim executive director. Another item on Wednesday's Airport Authority agenda recommends boosting the executive director's annual salary to $112,500. The salary figure follows a survey by the city of Melbourne's personnel office of eight Florida airports.

Ennis declined to answer a series of questions presented to him by FLORIDA TODAY until members of the Airport Authority members also reviewed them. He said he preferred to respond to the questions at Wednesday's board meeting.

About all Ennis would say prior to the meeting is that he appreciates displays of support like the one at July's meeting.

"When you get support like that from the community, it's a positive thing," Ennis said last week.

On the job six months after the controversial ousting of former Executive Director James Johnson, Ennis certainly has garnered considerable support and accolades.

Authority members and others who follow events at the airport say that support has much to do with Ennis' low-key, measured way of approaching his duties at the airport.

But it's also probably because his style contrasts so much with Johnson's, which some people said bordered on authoritarianism and the political, that Ennis seems more like a breath of fresh air.

"There is just a difference between the attitudes of the employees, the relationships in the business community. Just everything," said Jack Ryals, an Airport Authority representative who represents the Melbourne-Palm Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.

"People enjoy working with him, and they respect him," Ryals said.

While Ennis earns high grades for his job performance so far, among some authority members, there still seems to be resentment about Johnson's February ousting. Johnson agreed to resign, but wanted the effective date to be July. A majority of authority members demanded it that day.

Also, some authority members think there needs to be a nationwide search for an executive director, if, for nothing else, to give Ennis -- if he indeed were selected after such a search -- credibility.

National search

"It's going to be hard not to have a national search, even though I don't think you're going to find better," said Hall, an authority member who has changed his opinions more than once on the need for a thorough search for an executive director.

Gene McCarthy, another airport authority member, said a national search "would give whoever is selected some credibility."

Loretta Isenberg-Hand, an authority member and strong supporter of Johnson, did not return numerous calls left by FLORIDA TODAY. Neither did Cheryl Palmer. Both also are Melbourne City Council representatives.

Alan Doshier, chairman of the Airport Authority, said he backs Ennis. Doshier is out of town this week and won't be attending Wednesday's meeting.

"I don't think it's necessary to do the search, given Richard's performance over the last six months," Doshier said.

Ennis stepped into the job of executive director on the morning of Feb. 16. That's when the seven-member airport authority voted to demand Johnson's immediate resignation after an investigation revealed he tried selling some land he co-owned near Melbourne International to someone the airport was doing business with on a development project.

There also had been other missteps that generated considerable resentment of Johnson in the community in previous years, but the land-sale talks, discovered after a special investigator looked into the matter at the board's insistence, sealed his fate.

Johnson admitted the land-sale discussions were a mistake, an honest error in judgment, he said.

But the authority, in a 4-3 vote, nevertheless asked him to resign that day.

Minutes later, Ennis took over as interim executive director.

After Johnson's forced resignation, a committee, led by authority member Isenberg-Hand -- a Johnson supporter -- looked at executive-search firms to conduct a nationwide search for a permanent executive director.

The committee focused on two firms New York-based Boyden Global Executive Search Group and Long Beach, Calif.-based Alliance Resource Consulting LLC. Boyden, the committee's top choice, would cost $46,750, while Alliance was going to charge $27,500.

Ennis, committee members said, would be encouraged to apply.

However, other authority members, led by Melbourne Mayor Harry Goode, who also serves on the board, were able to stall the measure to give Ennis a chance to operate for a few months. And Goode said Ennis has earned his keep, pointing to additional nonstop flights to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport in and to Washington Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

"He has excelled," Goode said. "I don't see any need to go to a search. Just because the airport has some money doesn't mean we need to waste it on a search."

Ryals agreed. A search process would "not be a good expenditure of airport funds."

'Excellent job'

McCarthy, who supported Johnson staying on the job until a July retirement date, said, "Richard has done an excellent job."

However, he believes a nationwide search provides more plausibility to the process. It also would strengthen the executive director's position in the eyes of the public.

Still, "Richard would have to be the one to beat," McCarthy said.

Outside the airport, Ennis seems to be earning respectable marks.

Florida Tech's School of Aeronautics had a contentious relationship with Johnson after he initiated efforts to move the school's maintenance hangar at the airport to make room for what turned out to be futile effort school to lure a British charter company, PlaneStation Group, to Melbourne.

"Richard, as well as the Airport Authority board, have been extremely helpful in working with the university and FIT Aviation to ease some of the problems we have been through with the PlaneStation agreement," said Michael Karim, dean of Florida Tech's School of Aeronautics. "The relationship is going so well that we felt very comfortable signing a new five-year lease late last month."

Milo Zonka, a local financial planner, pilot and airport watchdog who was a frequent critic of Johnson, said he's all for stability at the airport, and he backs Ennis' job performance so far.

However, he still supports a search process.

"In my discussions with airport users and tenants, I've concluded that Ennis has acted admirably and quickly in repairing a lot of the damage left behind by his predecessor," Zonka said. "He has been successful in bringing the airport back into the community, and he is listening. That's doesn't excuse the board from its duty to be informed of its alternatives."


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Some members want to conduct national search"

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