By Carten Cordell Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA — As summer has transitioned into fall, the controversies that have embroiled the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for much of the year seem to be falling by the wayside.
The Washington, D.C. City Council finally passed legislation to expand MWAA’s board of directors from 13 members to 17 Tuesday, some six months after Virginia passed corresponding legislation and almost a year after the White House signed off on broadening the authority.
Virginia, which has five members on the board, will appoint seven directors, while Maryland will have three and the District of Columbia, four, each gaining one new appointee. The remaining three members will come from presidential appointment, which wasn’t expanded.
The move puts to rest at least one controversy — the representation split among board partners Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and the federal government — but also opens the opportunity for the authority to move beyond the dysfunctional wrangling that has dogged it this year.
Virginia — home to the three entities managed by MWAA, Washington Dulles International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and the Dulles Toll Road — has been angling for greater representation on the board since last year, when U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Manassas, introduced legislation to expand the board.
The expansion is seen as win for Gov. Bob McDonnell, who sought more influence for Virginia on the development of Phase 2 of the $6 billion Silver Line Metro project, which is to begin construction next year.
“I thank the D.C. City Council for today adopting those changes to its law to allow for rightfully appointed board members from Virginia, D.C., and Maryland, to finally be seated,” McDonnell said in a statement Tuesday. “The taxpayers of Northern Virginia, and all Virginians, rely on the critical transportation infrastructure managed by MWAA.”
Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, said the expansion signifies Virginia becoming a major player in the area after decades of economic growth.
“This is Virginia’s way of scratching out an equitable voice in some of these larger regional authorities that make a lot of decisions and spend a lot of Virginia taxpayers’ money,” he said. “I see it as a balancing process that has been going on (among D.C., Maryland and Virginia) for a long time. It is more than just the controversies of late.”
Those controversies have been many. From reports of sweetheart contracts and extravagant spending from the board to a protracted legal battle to remove one of Virginia’s appointed directors, much of MWAA’s business has ground to a halt this year, while the authority tried to address its widely publicized criticisms.
In an effort to salvage the authority’s reputation, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood appointed DOT lawyer Kimberly Moore to be MWAA’s new accountability officer. MWAA board chairman Michael Curto worked with Moore to shepherd in new ethics and travel policies and reform the authority’s many perceived problems.
But the composition of the board itself has often seemed rife with conflict. At previous meetings, some board members have expressed open distrust of McDonnell and the Virginia government.
Robert Clarke Brown, a presidential appointee and frequent McDonnell critic, wrote a letter this week to LaHood claiming that DOT “has overreached in its efforts to correct perceived deficiencies in MWAA governance, significantly undermining MWAA’s independence.”
But alongside the expanded appointments also comes new directors selected by the White House that could change the face of negotiations on the MWAA board. Last month, President Barack Obama nominated Massachusetts lawyer William Shaw McDermott to replace outgoing Brown and former New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells to replace the late Charles Snelling, pending U.S. Senate approval.
Those appointments, alongside the new directors and the appointment of Caren Merrick to replace Dennis Martire, gives MWAA a fresh slate on which to negotiate.
“There is an opportunity to move forward in a more realistic kind of way, put some of the problems behind and hopefully not revisit some of those things again. The people that allowed that (controversy) are moving on and that is probably good for everybody.”
Contact Carten Cordell at firstname.lastname@example.org.