By Sarah Mansheim
“This is a business, and we need to operate it like a business.”
So said Greenbrier County Airport Authority Chair Lowell Johnson, when asked about the series of personnel changes at the Greenbrier Valley Airport. Johnson was referring to the retirement of general manager Jerry O’ Sullivan last spring, the removal of Sherman McClung as operations and maintenance manager, and the recent retirement of chief financial officer Linda Yoak, who opted to retire after she had been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a financial audit.
Johnson did not elaborate on the circumstances on O’Sullivan and Yoak’s retirements, but he did note that “every employee (at the airport) is there at the will and pleasure of the board.”
As to whether the personnel changes were made as part of a deliberate changing of the guard on the part of the authority, the governing body of the airport, Johnson demurred.
“I don’t think we started with the idea of ‘cleaning house,’” he said. In fact, what he started with was a series of questions that he began asking over two years ago.
Johnson joined the airport authority in 2012, becoming chairman in 2013. Up until that point, he said, the authority deferred to the general manager and CFO, i.e. O’Sullivan and Yoak.
“I believe that the (airport authority’s) oversight was very lax,” he said.
Upon becoming chairman, Johnson said he began to look into the contracts the airport authority held with its tenants, including the airport’s restaurant, rental car agency, and those who rent airplane hangars. He didn’t find much: most tenants had no contracts to speak of or were operating under contracts that were expired; one of them, he said, hadn’t been renewed since 2008.
“Everything was made by verbal agreement with Jerry O’Sullivan,” said Johnson, who had also discovered that the rates for hangar rentals varied depending on the tenant.
“I insisted we get contracts with all these people. Jerry worked with the various groups and we now have equitable pay for the hangers.”
The more Johnson dug around, the more concerns he had. He said he discovered that there was no insurance on the airport buildings. He found that there were no security cameras at the airport or on its fuel farm. He discovered there was no employee handbook.
At that point, Johnson began pressing O’Sullivan to put insurance coverage into place and to create an employee handbook standardizing all operating procedures. And, he begin looking at the airport’s finances.
During the authority meetings in 2014, Johnson began pressing for full financial reports from Yoak. For years, the authority paid a CPA, James L. Teed of Teed and Associates, to perform their annual audits. This year, Teed failed to provide a report and was suspended by the West Virginia State Auditor’s Office.
By then, O’Sullivan had announced his sudden retirement, and the board commissioned the State Auditor’s Office to provide them with a full, comprehensive audit of the airport’s finances. At that point, Yoak was placed on paid administrative leave. She has since accepted retirement.
Earlier this year, the board terminated McClung’s employment as operations and maintenance manager. McClung had been personally hired by O’Sullivan without the approval of the authority back in early 2014. In June, 2014, the authority amended McClung’s title to acting operations and maintenance manager, but then hired him to the permanent position after a proper vote was cast.
Last week, the authority voted to separate the operations and maintenance managerial positions, hiring Cheryl Davis as director of operations and Clyde Green as director of maintenance. Both Davis and Green are long-time airport employees.
The authority also approved the hiring of Martha Livesay as the executive assistant to new general manager, Stephen Snyder. Johnson said they will not hire another CFO, but instead will depend on an outside, independent CPA to perform the heavy financial lifting for the airport.
As for the audit, the results have still not come back. The original audit performed by Teed remains in limbo, as the CPA refuses to release the audit to the airport authority unless they recuse him of any responsibility, Johnson said. The other audit, from the state office, is still pending.
Johnson said he does not expect the state audit to reflect any wrongdoing on the part of Yoak, the former CFO, but, he said, “we need to make sure that the money the airport spends is accounted for. Before, we didn’t have anyone with eyes on the finances other than the CFO and the general manager.”
In fact, said Johnson, over the years, as Teed had performed the annual audits, there were no line items accounted for, just a general balance sheet. Johnson said he hopes that financial oversight from the authority will help to track such things as travel expenses incurred by management, which before, were never called into question.
“We’re going from a very laissez faire kind of situation to implementing policies and procedures,” said Johnson in regards to the airport’s future and its relationship with the new general manager. But, he said, it won’t be easy.
“It’s hard to go from a laissez fair system to one that’s going to be held accountable,” he said, so the board is seeking input, not only from its new CPA firm, but from the Federal Aviation Administration as well. He said the authority is also putting together an advisory panel of aviation experts and community members to help bring the airport into the future.
“We’re trying to get some good recommendations on how to run this airport,” said Johnson, who noted that his goal of bringing education and economic development to the airport includes a revamped website and better relationships with the community at large.
“We have it all here. The Greenbrier, the mountains, downtown Lewisburg, white water rafting. We need to highlight that to pilots and passengers in order to make the Greenbrier Valley an appealing place to fly into,” he said.
That also includes the possibility of getting rid of Silver Airways. Johnson and Snyder both said they are very unhappy with the quality of service the airline has provided to travelers – the combination of late flights, lost luggage and limited service are enough for them to consider an alternative airline.
Snyder said he is committed to bringing a daily flight to either Charlotte or Atlanta, and possibly, a direct flight to Florida. He said he also wants an incoming flight from the West Coast – something either out of Nashville, Dallas or Phoenix. The airport’s contract with Silver Airways expires in September, 2016, but neither Snyder or Johnson seem to be willing to continue working with the airline.
And as for the management shake-ups? Johnson acknowledges all of the changes have caused a lot of whispering in the community, what with the sudden retirements of O’Sullivan and Yoak, the firing of the operations and maintenance manager, and the financial audit.
So, what happened?
“What happened was, the board took over the airport,” he said.