FL Rep Grant backs off his airport authority election changes, until November

By Betsy Calvert, Charlotte Sun Staff Writer, Feb 23, 2021  

State Rep. Michael Grant Tuesday announced changes to his proposed election law that would provide protections for airport commissioners who opposed him in airport privatization.

The Charlotte County Republican also said in a Zoom call Tuesday with his fellow legislators, that he will no longer ask the Legislature to enact his proposed bill this year. That’s because with all the changes he added in the last few days, there has not been enough public notice, he said he was advised by state house staff. The state’s legislative session begins next week in Tallahassee.

The state delegation of Grant, Sen. Joe Gruters and Sen. Ben Albritton agreed in the Zoom call to review Grant’s new proposal in November.

Grant’s first proposal — advertised in a legal notice on Feb. 15 — was to allow all five airport commissioners to be from any district instead of having each from one of five districts. This proposal drew rapid condemnation from the Airport Authority, airport tenants and the county commission.

The elements of Grant’s new proposal are:

• Two-term, eight-year limit, but existing airport commissioners can serve another eight years.

• Replace the current five districts, common to the county commission and school board, with three districts — west, east and mid county.

• Make two commissioners at large, instead of from a particular district.

• Add two voting members to include the county commission and the Punta Gorda City Council.

Airport Commission Rob Hancik, who many considered to be targeted by Grant’s proposal, said he is not impressed. “I think this was a way for the other senators not to vote against Mike Grant on the existing bill,” he told The Daily Sun. “This doesn’t change the fact that Michael Grant is still interfering with local government.”

Albritton praised Grant and himself for the new proposal. “I would say what you are proposing is very smart,” said Albritton in the Zoom call. “The idea of continuing to have it vetted, you’ve done a very good job, as I have and I’m sure Sen. Gruters has of reaching out to folks in the community and checking the pulse and just getting creative about the idea and the process.”

Gruters agreed and added that he liked the idea of term limits, which Florida legislators and the governor face.

The big question remains, however, said County Commissioner Stephen R. Deutsch. “Why?” he asked.

The small Punta Gorda Airport, with one commercial airline, may be the most successful airport in the country, financially, Deutsch said. This was one reason it was sought by investors late last year for a partnership worth up to $1 billion over 40 years. Hancik, who once ran an airport in Missouri, was the authoritative lead to the successful opposition to what would have been a historic move. Grant was a major advocate for the management investor partnership.

“The public is obviously satisfied with the performance of the existing board members, irrelevant of how long they’ve served, because if they didn’t like them, they would vote them out,” Hancik said.

Grant explained his reasoning publicly for the first time in the Zoom meeting. Since 2012 only one incumbent has lost an election at the airport, he said.

“That’s the reason that I propose that we open up the election process and make it easier for new candidates to run for this important board,” he said. “As a former member of the authority, I am a strong advocate for its continued independence. The board in the past has been entrepreneurial and nimble. It has seized opportunities when they were presented and faced unexpected challenges with courage and foresight…I believed the changes to the election outlined above would have enhanced that legacy and made the board a more dominant and positive force in the community going forward.”

Deutsch voiced the added wrinkle to the many-sided dispute. “Nobody wants it except Grant, Oh, I’m sorry, Grant and his daughter,” he said.

Grant’s daughter, Vanessa Oliver, was recently elected to the airport commission. Oliver was interested in privatization and approved of her father’s election law changes including term limits. Some board members have accused her of withholding information on her father’s plans.

“I think the Heritage Foundation put it best when it said the only serious opponents of term limits are incumbent politicians and the special interests that serve them,” she said Monday at a meeting where she was the lone opponent of a resolution opposing Grant’s proposal.

Grant told The Daily Sun earlier that he did not propose election changes to continue down the privatization path. That’s because Allegiant Airlines has already issued a veto to the idea.

Hancik said he thinks privatization is still driving the politics of this deal.

County commissioners Tuesday rearranged their meeting so they could enter their objections via Zoom. But Grant ended the meeting abruptly.

“All that prep for nothing,” joked County Commissioner Joe Tiseo. “It’s never for nothing,” said County Commission Chair Bill Truex.