Privatizing the Punta Gorda Airport may be off the table, but suspicions linger over who was trying to get rid of the Airport Authority.
Some county officials see the recent release of City Council emails as a smoking gun, but one of the people that the gun is pointed at claims no involvement.
“I have never spoken to Mayor (Lynne) Matthews or the city manager about the Charlotte County Airport Authority,” Rep. Michael Grant told The Daily Sun in an email.
How about the airport authority consultant, Andrew Vasey? Late last year, Vasey joined former Airport Commissioner Pam Seay in campaigning to turn airport operations over to a private group that would pay hundreds of millions of dollars over 40 years to the county for the privilege.
“I spoke to Mr. Vasey and let him know I was disappointed that the Charlotte County Airport Authority wouldn’t even look at the proposals to determine whether or not any such deal would be in the best interest of the residents of Charlotte County. What he did after that, I do not know,” Grant said.
In November, the Airport Authority voted 3-2 to end discussion of a public-private partnership, even with investors waiting in the wings. Grant’s daughter, Vanessa Oliver, who was recently elected to the Airport Authority, voted for the authority to consider privatization proposals during her first meeting.
The main reason for the 3-2 vote was because the airport is doing so well, even in the midst of the pandemic, that changing management seemed like a bad idea. At issue is the fact that the airport by law can’t spend its excess funds outside of the airport. The public-private plan was a way to spend the income anywhere in the county, including on reviving Allegiant Airlines’ stalled Sunseeker resort construction.
Even Allegiant however, said they were not interested, and their vote counts more than anyone’s. They have effective veto power. Allegiant did not put that in writing, however, until after the City Council, on Dec. 2, agreed without a vote to petition the state legislature about the airport. The request was to wrest control of the airport from the five-person authority.
It was an unadvertised decision made with little debate. City council members have said they only agreed to hear a presentation on airport privatization from Vasey. But the request to change the airport ownership legislation was drafted immediately. The pitch would go to county’s legislative delegation, which includes Grant.
This was the pitch, that was rescinded a few days later:
“Knowing the quality and value of work that has occurred for the Public Private Partnership proposal, and knowing the value that the city of Punta Gorda could derive from such a long term partnership, the city of Punta Gorda seeks the delegation’s assistance in becoming the principal partner in the PPP in order to further evaluate and potentially execute the agreement arising from ownership of the Punta Gorda Airport.”
“This isn’t just listening to a presentation,” said County Commissioner Joe Tiseo to the Metropolitan Planning Organization in December. “This is requesting that ownership position. That can only be done legislatively.”
Contacted by The Daily Sun this week, Tiseo said he believes the emails that recently were released show that Grant was an instigator.
“He’s implicated by (Vice Mayor) Debbie Carey and the Mayor (Lynn Matthews) by name,” Tiseo said.
Grant’s name appears to come up once in the emails.
“Tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. we will be meeting to discuss Mike Grant’s request that we listen to details about privatizing the airport,” Vice Mayor Debbie Carey said in a Dec. 8 email to six people not on the council.
Matthews’ statements came at a Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting in December.
“There was a discussion that took place between the gentleman that did the presentation to the Airport Authority (Vasey) and Michael Grant’s office, and Michael Grant’s office had requested that they communicate to us that they would like us to consider getting involved at some level ... We were asked to include that in our legislative agenda so it could be on the record that we want a seat at the table, so to speak,” she said.
Speaking this week, Matthews told The Daily Sun that everything was communicated through the city manager, Greg Murray. City spokesperson Melissa Reichert issued this statement on Murray's behalf: "The City Manager has no position. The consultant simply asked if the Council wanted to hear the proposal." Vasey has not returned calls for comment.
The man who requested the emails is Airport Authority lawyer Darrol Carr, who did not return calls for comment or for information on emails from Vasey.
Airport Authority Commissioner Rob Hancik said he has not seen any emails. Even though the issue has been tabled, Hancik said he would like to get to the bottom of things.
“I want to find out what all went on with this thing,” he said.
Tiseo asked: “Why does Michael Grant want to see the Airport Authority dissolved?”
(Editor's note: This story has been edited to include a statement from the city.)