Miami-Dade County

Miami’s airport director says goodbye: ‘I may have pissed some people off’

Emilio González, outgoing director of Miami International Airport, flips through an easel with yearly goals from his four-year tenure running the county-owned facility. He points to successes in expanding international flights east and west, and in growing traffic.
Emilio González, outgoing director of Miami International Airport, flips through an easel with yearly goals from his four-year tenure running the county-owned facility. He points to successes in expanding international flights east and west, and in growing traffic. dhanks@miamiherald.com

At the start of his last week as director of Miami International Airport, one piece of paperwork dominated the desk of Emilio González: an old two-page magazine spread about Angela Gittens, a predecessor forced out of the top MIA job in 2004 after scrapes with politicians and powerful airport vendors.

González dismissed the placement as a coincidence amid the shuffle of papers into boxes and trash bins for his pending departure on Friday after nearly five years overseeing Florida’s busiest airport. But given González’s embrace of his own fights with influential MIA leaseholders, the Gittens piece could be mistaken for a prop.

“I don’t shy away from a good fight,” said González, a former director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under President George W. Bush who joined the county payroll in 2013 as Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s pick for airport director. “I may have pissed some people off while I was here. But if you don’t piss people off, you’re not doing your job.”

González quietly resigned two days after Gimenez stripped him of his authority to oversee the airport’s concession operations, the lucrative collection of duty-free stores, newsstands, restaurants and other concessions that have long made MIA home to some of the fiercest political fights in the county — as well as a top source of campaign donations for Gimenez and county commissioners.

Now considered a top contender for the post of Miami city manager under newly elected Mayor Francis Suarez, González certainly may have had other motivations for resigning beyond a diminished portfolio at MIA. Publicly, he says the mayor’s reorganization “is a piece” of the reason he left “but not the piece.”

“If I was still the director, I would make it work,” he said. “It’s not something that is seen at other airports.”

I may have pissed some people off while I was here. But if you don’t piss people off, you’re not doing your job.

Outgoing Miami International Airport Director Emilio González

Supporters saw the retired U.S. Army colonel as an independent airport executive who, as a newcomer to county government, wasn’t reliant on a risk-free tenure in order to secure a full pension. He presided over continued growth at MIA, with record traffic of nearly 45 million passengers in 2016 and an expanding roster of international routes to Asia, Europe and the Middle East that this month grew to include Israel’s El Al route to Tel Aviv.

“We are in conversations right now with African carriers to come in,” he said. “If you look at our route network, it was basically north-south. Now you see more east-west.”

Rebeca Sosa, the county commissioner who serves as chair of the committee overseeing MIA, credited González for leading the way on recruiting new carriers.

“The director has all my respect,” Sosa said. “We need the big airlines to call MIA home.”

As the end neared Monday, his office remained a showcase of his ties to the Republican Party. Fox News played in the background, and above his desk sat a large framed photo of him greeting Vice President Mike Pence on the runway. One bookshelf held still-in-the-box novelty dolls from the 2016 election: one of Donald Trump in a suit, one of Hillary Clinton in prison stripes. He’s been mentioned as a possible head of the Federal Aviation Administration under Trump, but the 60-year-old grandfather says he does not want to move to Washington.

González’s detractors portray him as a self-promoter who used the airport’s publicity arm and Twitter feed to flaunt friendships with Republican officeholders in Washington. José Abreu, González’s predecessor as MIA director, touched on the criticism in a blistering text he sent last week to airport executives and other county officials about “daily annoying and meaningless press releases” from the airport and a budget that grew above $1 billion.

“The minute I left I watched with dismay the payroll go up, expenditures go up, unwarranted travel go up, ” Abreu wrote in a recent text message to senior MIA executives that an airport spokesman said was received the day after Thanksgiving.

As director, González championed the county’s scrapping of the “Airport City” commercial complex at MIA that had been an Abreu pet project before he left in 2013. In an interview, González dismissed the criticism as misinformed, saying promotion helps MIA attract new business and that success brings higher budgets. “Yes, the airport is spending,” he said. “We are growing.”

Though his name has been mentioned as a potential replacement for González, Abreu wrote he wasn’t interested in returning. “Now that ‘Ding, dong the witch is dead,’ everyone wants me to come back! Well with all modesty, I am not doing that because the place does not deserve me.”

Abreu, now an engineering consultant with Gannett Fleming, declined to comment on the text. His feisty comments capture the drama surrounding González’s resignation, which unofficially takes effect Friday when he begins taking time off with accumulated leave until his formal last day in February.

On Oct. 30, Gimenez issued a memo naming a top aide in his 29th-floor offices, economic development director Leland Salomon, as the “Special Assistant for Miami-Dade Aviation Department Landside Business Operations.” A Nov. 1 resignation letter from González offered no explanation for his exit but noted, “This was not an easy decision to make.” The county announced his departure two weeks later.

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Gimenez pitched his reorganization as a way to streamline procurement at MIA, because it shifts contract work out of the airport and into Internal Services, the county agency that handles purchasing for all other Miami-Dade departments. He said it also would leave the aviation director free to focus on logistics and growth related to planes rather than stores and restaurants.

Salomon will supplant the MIA director as the county executive making leasing and other airport concession recommendations to Gimenez, who in turns sends his proposals to the 13-member commission for final approval. Within a year, Gimenez wants to sign master developers to take over entire terminals and be charged with both leasing spaces and funding improvements, rather than the commission having to approve each retail and construction contract.

The system is designed to avoid the airport-versus-vendor fights that helped define González’s final year at the airport.

González rejected extension requests for some of the largest retailers at MIA, including Newslink and Cafe Versailles, which reported lower sales due to construction and other airport issues. Christopher Descalzo, head of the concessions company that owns the Versailles locations, did not criticize González by name but in an email described the current MIA business climate as too “US vs. THEM.”

The disputes helped prompt Gimenez to freeze leasing decisions at the airport for much of 2017 while Salomon and others conducted a review of airport procurement (meetings that González said he mostly skipped). Airports in Baltimore, Chicago and Denver already outsource terminal operations to master developers, and Gimenez described the system as a way to avoid refereeing vendor disputes with airport directors.

“It will depoliticize the concessions at the airport,” Gimenez said of the new system. “Because we will be dealing with one developer chosen through a competitive process, and not dealing with individual concessionaires.”

County commissioners must approve the new system, which would then require bidding out the development deal for what would be one of the most high-stakes concession battles in MIA history. González said he supports the developer model for MIA, and gives himself decent marks for navigating county politics at the airport.

“I think I did a good job trying to keep the politics out of the airport,” he said. “A good job. Not a great job. But that’s the nature of the beast.”

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