The seven-month nationwide search for Chicago’s next aviation commissioner has been stymied by the comparatively low $186,576-a-year salary — so much so that an executive search firm has been hired.
Spencer Stuart & Associates will be paid roughly $100,000 to assist the search committee headed by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closest friends in politics.
Late last year, LaHood told the Chicago Sun-Times he had plenty of top-notch candidates to replace Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, who revealed her resignation plans last June.
LaHood said the $187,576-a-year salary was not an issue — even though it includes overseeing day-to-day operations at O’Hare and Midway Airports as well as the massive O’Hare runway expansion project.
Behind the scenes, it was a different story.
Sources said search committee members have been told the salary is too low to attract the nation’s top airport executives and that, if Emanuel is intent on finding a seasoned airport executive, the salary would have to be raised substantially.
That’s a controversial move he’s unlikely to make until after the Feb. 24 mayoral election.
In a follow-up interview last week, LaHood refused to discuss the search, the salary or the decision to hire Spencer Stuart after the mayoral selection committee spent seven months spinning its wheels.
LaHood referred all questions to Emanuel’s $1-a-year deputy mayor, Steve Koch.
In an emailed statement, Koch said, “Aviation Commissioner is an important role to ensuring the effective management and growth of one of Chicago’s most critical economic engines, and this individual will also be a critical partner in Chicago’s efforts to continue to increase tourism and further solidify the city as an international gateway. The task force has decided to work with an executive search firm, and in the meantime the department is under capable hands with first deputy commissioner Michael Boland, who is serving as acting commissioner.”
Mayoral spokesman Andres Orellana was asked why LaHood’s committee spent seven months spinning its wheels, instead of hiring an executive search committee from the get-go.
“The committee started from a narrow field to get a feeling of what type of candidates might be available. Over the course of the process, the committee decided to broaden their search,” Orellana wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times.
Emanuel’s communications director Kelley Quinn hinted strongly that salary was an issue and that a pay raise may be in the works.
“We expect that the salary for the next aviation commissioner to be in line with industry standards,” Quinn wrote in an email.
Chicago’s $186,576-a-year salary falls far short of what some top airport executives are paid across the U.S.
In 2010, the new manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport, then the world’s busiest passenger airport, was hired at more annually — $221,000.
In 2014, Jacksonville, Florida, was paying its airport boss $280,000; Orlando International was doling out a base salary of $241,000, and Miami International was paying $262,000, according to a 2014 column in the Birmingham News.
Andolino’s replacement will run two airports – one of them touted by Emanuel as the world’s busiest in operations — but also the ambitious and contentious O’Hare runway expansion project.
In some other regions with multiple airports, such as New York-New Jersey and the Washington, D.C., area, a separate entity hires someone as airport chief, noted Joseph Schwieterman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development.
But in Chicago, the multi-airport job constitutes a city “commissioner” post, paid by the city.
“We don’t have an independent airport authority so the pay is less than jobs of equal scale,” Schwieterman said.
“The salary may prevent some superstar candidates from coming forward or applying. It’s an enormously complex job that would command higher pay in a lot of other regions,” Schwieterman said.
Plus, he noted, the extra challenge of “reporting to the mayor can be a demanding assignment.”
The decision to hire an executive search firm undoubtedly means that Acting Aviation Commissioner Michael Boland will remain in the pilot’s seat through the Feb. 24 election and beyond.
Emanuel’s decision to order a nationwide search for Andolino’s replacement appeared to signal a refreshing break from Chicago’s history of filling the airport job with political insiders with no experience running a major airport.
Mary Rose Loney, who held the job twice under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, was a rare exception, having run airports in Dallas and Las Vegas.
But Loney left Chicago after clashing with clout-heavy contractors with close ties to the Daley family.
The Chicago Sun-Times reported last fall that Emanuel has gotten more than $125,000 in campaign contributions from 51 employees of United Airlines and American Airlines in recent months as he prepares to make pivotal decisions affecting O’Hare Airport’s two largest carriers.
The number of United and American contributors to Emanuel has soared five-fold since his first mayoral race, a Sun-Times analysis of campaign records found.
The huge jump came as the winner of next month’s mayoral election is set to face a thicket of issues that affect O’Hare’s two major carriers. Among them: the renegotiation of lease agreements; growing demands for relief from new O’Hare jet noise; and rising complaints about additional O’Hare runway expansion.
HMS Host, which controls 60 percent of the food and beverage concessions at O’Hare, is also operating on a month-to-month contract. So are most of the concessionaires at Midway Airport, where Emanuel grounded his privatization plan after one of only two remaining bidders left the runway.
Among political insiders under consideration to replace Andolino is the city’s Chief Procurement Officer Jamie Rhee. Rhee served as an attorney for O’Hare Modernization Program under then-Aviation Commissioner Nuria Fernandez.
Andolino’s rise to the job of overseeing both day-to-day operations at O’Hare and Midway and the massive O’Hare expansion project is a classic story of Chicago clout.
A former part-time makeup artist who once served as queen of Chicago’s Columbus Day parade, she is the granddaughter of a veteran 36th Ward precinct captain and the wife of former Ald. Mark Fary (12th).
The couple’s gala 2000 wedding reception at the Hyatt Regency Hotel attracted a who’s who of Chicago politics, including Daley.
Andolino is also a former administrative assistant to Daley’s disgraced City Council floor leader, former Ald. Patrick Huels (11th), and to former Daley political enforcer and Hispanic Democratic Organization chieftain Victor Reyes.
Daley’s former patronage chief, Streets and Sanitation commissioner and two others were subsequently convicted of rigging city hiring and promotions to benefit HDO and other pro-Daley political armies.
In 2003, Daley put Andolino, then 36, in the control tower of the massive O’Hare project, even though she had no background in either construction or aviation.
Her only remotely related experience included a stint as first deputy planning commissioner, where she oversaw land acquisition for Daley’s $100 million Neighborhoods Alive plan to build police and fire stations and rode herd over the rebirth of the Brickyard Mall in Banks’ Northwest Side ward.
The move raised eyebrows in aviation circles, but not at City Hall, where Andolino was one of the few people around Daley whom the mayor felt truly comfortable with and turned to repeatedly for advice.