State committee weighs Atlanta airport takeover idea at final meeting

Two attorneys who represented a company that sued the city of Atlanta for steering contracts to connected friends recounted their case on Thursday to a state Senate committee studying the idea of creating an authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

After the study committee wrapped up its fourth and final meeting, its chairman, State Sen. Burt Jones, R-Jackson, said he still believes the Atlanta airport should be run by an entity an arm's length away from politics, rather than as a department of the city of Atlanta.

The committee is due to prepare a report by Jan. 1, which Jones said would include recommendations on whether to proceed with legislation on the matter.

“I still think long-term, it’s in the best interests of the citizens of Georgia to have a business enterprise structure” to handle the airport, Jones said Thursday after the meeting.

The two attorneys who represented Corey Airport Advertising said companies that think they unfairly lost out on contracts sometimes have little legal recourse.

Corey Airport Advertising alleged the city steered a contract to a competitor with political connections, Clear Channel and its minority business partner, the late Barbara Fouch, a longtime friend of the late former Mayor Maynard Jackson. Corey won a $3.9 million settlement from the city, but in 2012 lost on appeal in the case against Clear Channel and Fouch.

For companies shut out, “the road is just incredibly difficult,” said Darren Penn, an attorney who represented Corey.

But Robert Highsmith, an attorney representing the city, told the state study committee that “the Barbara Fouch situation could not happen again today,” because the federal government manages the disadvantaged business program, and the Georgia Department of Transportation certifies companies in the program.

Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden told the committee that the Atlanta airport, which is expected to handle 106 million passengers this year, operates more efficiently — and more cost effectivelythan other major airports.

And more improvements are on the horizon, he said.

David Wilson, the city’s chief procurement officer appointed earlier this year, was tasked with improving the procurement process after Adam Smith, who previously served in that role, was sentenced to prison in early 2018 as part of a federal bribery probe.

Wilson said he plans to make city contracting more transparent and efficient.

“We’re not going to have integrity problems in my department,” Wilson said.

But Jones said it appears there has been a “systematic, structural problem” over multiple decades, with “shenanigans or political misgivings.”

State Sen. Brandon Beach proposed the idea of creating an airport commission to examine the issue further. “When you tackle big issues or complex issues, it takes time,” Beach said.

Atlanta officials had argued that terms of airport bonds would prove a barrier to takeover of the airport by another entity.

But, “the bond issue never has bothered me,” Jones said. “I just thought that was more smokescreen of trying to scare us away from it.”

Jones said he would be open to a state-city authority, but that an independent authority would enable full vetting of the idea of a second commercial airport to serve the region.

“That would be the only way to make it viable to have a real second hub discussion,” Jones said.

Atlanta airport management

  • Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is currently run by the City of Atlanta's Department of Aviation, and airport contracting is administered by the city's Department of Procurement.
  • Critics say this can result in contracts being steered to the politically connected.
  • A State Senate study committee is considering the idea of instead creating an airport authority to run Hartsfield-Jackson, which would remove it from the direct control of the City of Atlanta.
  • Supporters say this could limit political influence over the awarding of contracts.