Originally created 08/08/03

Aviation board fires director



Ken Kraemer had the chance to bow out at 9:57 a.m. - three minutes before the meeting in which he was fired.

Mr. Kraemer, who was terminated as the director of Augusta Regional Airport on Thursday, said City Attorney Jim Wall offered him the opportunity to resign and take a severance package before Thursday's meeting.

"It wasn't officially offered to me," Mr. Kraemer said. "Was there a vote to make that offer to me? The aviation commission can only vote in a public meeting."

Hours later, the Augusta Aviation Commission fired Mr. Kraemer in a 5-4 vote, ending months of speculation that his job was on the line. Some commission members said it was the right move for the airport's future, but it led Vice Chairman Whitney O'Keeffe to call for a complete disbanding of the commission.

"I think the city ought to get rid of this city board," said Mr. O'Keeffe, suggesting that a private company take over. "The only thing I've seen it accomplish is fire two directors and waste money."

The last director to be terminated was Al McDill, in April 2000. Mr. Kraemer took the helm during summer 2001.

Thursday's firing involved a six-month severance package of nearly $60,000 because Mr. Kraemer's $115,000-a-year contract had automatically renewed.

Mr. O'Keeffe said the vote was a surprise to him and should have involved the two board members who weren't present - Chris Cunningham and Ed McIntyre.

"This has been a witch hunt all along," Mr. O'Keeffe said.

The vote was based on a job-performance evaluation, which included several categories to be ranked in performance from zero to 20, Mr. O'Keeffe said.

"At least one of those forms had all zeros on it," Mr. O'Keeffe said. "Nobody could be that bad to have all zeros on it."

Mr. Kraemer had come under fire recently for the purchase of a $31,000 Eddie Bauer Ford Explorer without the aviation commission's approval and for his implementation of an organizational review.

Mr. O'Keeffe said both issues were raised during a closed-session meeting. Some commissioners also complained that Mr. Kraemer's relationship with other city department heads and officials of the Federal Aviation Administration wasn't satisfactory.

Mr. Kraemer said that he would consult an attorney and that he doesn't believe the aviation commission can fire him without the Augusta Commission's approval.

"It's my opinion that my contract was signed by the mayor," he said, adding that the Augusta Commission approved his original contract. "I feel the same is true in reverse."

Mr. Wall said the aviation commission can fire Mr. Kraemer. Cedric Johnson, the aviation commission's chairman, said Leslie Johnson, Augusta Regional's finance director, has been named interim airport director until City Administrator George Kolb can find another interim replacement.

Mr. Johnson said the city is involved because officials want to bring in someone from outside the airport to run things temporarily. He said filling the position permanently wouldn't involve a lengthy process.

Voting to fire Mr. Kraemer were: Marcie Wilhelmi, Sheila Paulk, Ernie Smith, Joe Scott and Venus Cain, who recently replaced Jimmy Drew. Mr. Drew resigned from the commission after being accused of lying about making illegal payments to a former North Carolina agriculture commissioner.

Those who voted against termination were: Mr. O'Keeffe, Brad Kyzer, Pat Owen and Bernie Silverstein. Mr. Johnson did not vote, but he disagreed with calls to disband the aviation board.

"I'm always miffed at the fact that when things don't go people's way they want to abolish things," he said.

Mr. Silverstein said he was concerned about the meeting's date, which he said was changed because of a scheduling conflict involving Mrs. Wilhelmi.

"A normal regular scheduled meeting, I don't believe, should ever be changed for anybody," he said.

Mr. Smith said Thursday wasn't a happy day, "but in order to move forward, you sometimes have to make a change."

"The decision we made today was absolutely necessary," he said.

Airport workers and tenants disagreed.

"It's very disappointing because he did so much for this airport," said Paul Fuehrer, a tenant..

Alvin Watkins, the general manager of Prime Flight Aviation Services, which provides the Sky Cab service and ticket checkers, also supported Mr. Kraemer.

"They (the aviation commissioners) are the ones that should be out of a job," Mr. Watkins said, "and the people of Augusta need to wake up and see that."

TIMELINE

April 13, 2000: Al McDill is fired as the director of Augusta Regional Airport, with seven commissioners voting in favor of his termination.

Aug. 1, 2001: Ken Kraemer becomes the director of Augusta Regional Airport. One of his first tasks is to implement an organizational review to cut unneeded airport positions.

Sept. 24, 2001: The aviation commission approves layoffs of one-third of Augusta Regional's staff. Board members cite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the reason.

Oct. 14, 2002: The airport announces that Continental Express flights will be coming to Augusta.

Dec. 19, 2002: The results of a called job performance evaluation on Mr. Kraemer return a 66 percent rating, or satisfactory. He is given a $4,025 raise.

May 30: A tenant at Augusta Regional presents a petition with 102 names in support of Mr. Kraemer. The petition is not accepted.

June: Mr. Kraemer's purchase of a $31,000 Ford Explorer draws fire from some aviation commissioners because it didn't receive the board's approval.

June 20: Aviation Commissioner Marcie Wilhelmi publicly criticizes Mr. Kraemer for not effectively implementing the organizational review.

Thursday: Mr. Kraemer is fired by a vote of 5-4.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.