The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority Board of Directors adopted a comprehensive new travel policy Wednesday, the latest step in an ongoing effort to restore the confidence of top federal, state and local officials who have criticized many of the Authority’s decisions and governance practices.
The policy, reflecting ‘best practices’ of the airport industry and the federal government, provides specific rules and approval processes for business-related travel and expenses for the board as well as the 1,400 Authority employees who operate Reagan National and Dulles International Airports and the Dulles Toll Road and manage construction of the Metrorail Silver Line.
Officials including Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, members of Congress, the governors of Maryland and Virginia and the mayor of the District of Columbia, have urged changes in policies regarding travel, employment, ethics, open meetings and awarding of contracts in order to increase accountability and public trust.
“As we meet here today, my fellow board members and I are acutely aware that a bright light of scrutiny has been focused on this organization,” Chairman Michael A. Curto told a specially called meeting of the directors. “Our sponsoring bodies have questioned whether we are doing all that we can do to ensure the professionalism, integrity and cost effectiveness of MWAA.”
Noting concerns raised in a May 15 interim report from the Department of Transportation Inspector General and a call for “reforms” in an Aug. 14 letter to the board from Secretary LaHood and other leaders, Curto said, “The board’s view on this matter is clear and unambiguous: we want MWAA to be as well run as any public entity, and we are prepared to re-examine any policy or practice to achieve this objective.”
Curto, who became chairman in January, emphasized that he and his colleagues on the board and in senior management have been working to improve the Authority’s policies and governance procedures since early in the year.
“As I started my tenure as chairman, I laid out three priorities for the organization: increased cooperation with our partners, especially the Commonwealth of Virginia, greater transparency for management and board operations, and the timely and cost-effective completion of the rail project. While it is true that the Authority has made its share of mistakes, and there are a number of issues that have yet to be adequately addressed, I think our harshest critics would also acknowledge that we have made significant progress on those key objectives,” he said.
“We revised the Authority’s bylaws in February to clarify rules for executive sessions at board meetings and to make additional board meeting information available on the Authority’s website,” he said. “Minutes of meetings of the board and its committees are now posted on the website shortly after each meeting. Materials to be used in board meetings are now posted on the website in advance of the meeting.”
In May, the Authority established an Internal Control Group “to review compliance with Authority policies and procedures.” Also in May, Curto “requested a review of the contracts relating to retention of former board members and accelerated our ongoing review of the Authority’s disclosure and ethics policies,” in addition to suspending all international travel by board members while the new travel policy was being formulated.
In July, the board instituted a new Freedom of Information policy and appointed a Freedom of Information officer “to assure timely and transparent responses to requests by the public for information on Authority business.”
Curto also said the Authority “will continue to collaborate” with a new federal accountability officer appointed by Secretary LaHood “to revise the Authority’s ethics policies, contracting and procurement guidelines, administrative procedures and human resources and hiring policies.”
In an update on the status of efforts to revamp contracting practices, President and CEO Jack Potter reported that the Authority is closing out all “sole source” professional services contracts that had been exempted from competitive bidding. Several of those contracts involved former members of the Authority’s board.
Potter said the “sole source” contractors had “done excellent work and provided valuable services” and “the quality of their work has never been an issue.” Services provided under the sole-source contracts will be re-acquired as needed through a competitive process.
In addition to approving the new travel policy, board members at Wednesday’s meeting discussed proposed revisions to ethics policies for directors and employees, received updates on legal matters and heard a briefing on proposed facility upgrades at Reagan National Airport.
At the next board meeting, set for Sept. 19, directors plan further work on ethics policies and other items relating to strengthening the Authority’s governance procedures.
Potter and Curto praised the Authority’s employees and emphasized that recent criticisms mostly have centered on administrative matters and not on the day-to-day work of staff.
“The people at the airports, on the toll road, at the rail office and at the construction sites keep our operations safe and efficient and provide high-quality services,” Potter said. “They have remained focused on their work, serving the traveling public. And for that I would like to salute them and thank them.”
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority was established in 1987 by the governments of Virginia and the District of Columbia to manage and operate Washington’s Ronald Reagan National and Dulles International airports, which together serve more than 40 million passengers a year. The Airports Authority also operates and maintains the Dulles Airport Access Road and the Dulles Toll Road and manages construction of the Silver Line project, a 23-mile extension of the Washington region’s Metrorail system into Loudoun County, Va. No taxpayer money is used to operate the toll road, which is funded by toll revenues, or the airports, which are funded through aircraft landing fees, rents and revenues from concessions. The Silver Line construction is funded by a combination of toll-road revenues, airport contributions and federal, state and local government appropriations. The Airports Authority is led by a 13-member Board of Directors appointed by the governors of Virginia and Maryland, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the president of the United States.