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Cleveland mayor disputes BWI chief's account of airport safety issues

Cleveland mayor says he 'never denied the funding' to staff airport run by BWI's new chief.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is disputing allegations that budget cuts left that city's airport with too few workers and led to federal fines over runway safety, as claimed this week by the airport's former manager, who now runs BWI Marshall Airport.

BWI administrator Ricky D. Smith Sr. has blamed federal safety violations that led to massive fines against Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on the city's decision to cut 35 positions, leaving too few workers to keep runways free of ice and snow.

Dan Williams, a spokesman for Jackson, said Thursday that Smith's statements to The Baltimore Sun were not accurate.

"The mayor never denied the funding that was required to fill positions," Williams said. He said that during the years 2013 through 2015, when the violations that led to the Federal Aviation Administration fines occurred, "no positions were ever denied."

Williams said the city was preparing a detailed response to Smith's assertions, but it was not available Thursday night.

On Wednesday, Smith cited budget cuts and staffing shortages as he discussed the FAA's decision to levy $735,000 in fines against Hopkins. The agency found four cases over the past two winters in which the Cleveland airport had failed to keep its runways clear in bad weather — leading to disruptions in air traffic.

The account Smith gave The Sun was essentially the same that Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete Rahn said Smith gave him when he asked about the FAA fines, which were announced this month. Rahn said he accepted Smith's explanation and saw no reason to question the decision to hire him this summer.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan named Smith to lead Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in July after firing Paul Wiedefeld, who had headed the airport since 2009 as an appointee of Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley. Smith had been the chief executive at the Cleveland airport since 2007.

Cleveland.com, an online publication covering Northeast Ohio, reported Thursday that budget documents it examined going back to 2011 showed the mayor regularly budgeted for more seasonal and full-time airfield maintenance positions than the city-owned airport filled.

The publication reported, for instance, that the city never hired more than 40 seasonal snowplow operators for the 44 positions budgeted for those years — with the number dropping to 28 last year. It said Hopkins' full-time maintenance crew was about a dozen workers below the number budgeted.

Through a spokesman, Smith declined to comment for this article. In an interview Wednesday, Smith staunchly defended his record in Cleveland. "At no point did I feel the airfield was unsafe, and I still maintain that position," he said.

A spokesman for Hogan said Thursday the administration stands behind Smith's appointment.

"Mr. Smith has the experience and skills to drive strong growth at BWI Marshall," said Hogan communications director Matthew A. Clark. "The airport is a job generator and economic engine for the state, and the Hogan administration remains focused on continued growth in both domestic and international travel at our world-class airport."

The fines the FAA levied against Hopkins are among the largest the agency has imposed on an airport in a runway safety case. Cleveland officials have declined to discuss the FAA's findings, saying they are preparing a response to the agency.

The agency found the Cleveland airport failed to comply with its FAA-approved Snow and Ice Control Plans repeatedly over the course of the last two winters.

In one of the cases, for which the FAA imposed a $555,000 fine, the agency found that Hopkins failed to provide the number of qualified runway maintenance workers called for in the plan on 19 days between January and March this year.

Among other things, the FAA accused Hopkins of failing to clear runways and treat them with anti-icing chemicals in a timely manner. The agency said Hopkins failed to notify airlines of runway problems and did not close off parts of the airport that were unsafe.

Smith, whose salary at BWI is $294,304, told The Sun that he did not believe the runways at Hopkins were unsafe during the incidents. The complaint filed by the FAA recounts at least one incident where a United Airlines flight was diverted to Detroit after one runway was closed because of poor braking conditions and others were "unplowed and unsafe."

Smith said he fought cuts within the Jackson administration without success but did not bring his case before the City Council. Jackson, a Democrat, has been mayor of Cleveland since 2006. Smith, who was BWI's chief operating officer during the administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., worked for Jackson eight years before returning to Maryland.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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