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Metro Councilman Trae Welch proposes appointing Ralph Hennessy as Director of Aviation for the Greater Baton Rouge Airport District at a council meeting in October. His proposal was defeated but a proposal by Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg establishing a committee and appointing members to conduct a national search for the Director of Aviation passed.

Advocate Staff Photo by PATRICK DENNIS

The Metro Council has decided to throw open the competition for the job of airport director after all.

After locking horns for weeks, a divided council on Wednesday agreed to hold a national search rather than permanently offer the job to interim director Ralph Hennessy, who had previously served as the airport's second in command for 16 years.

"For me, this is just the best practice that we should be doing as a municipality," said councilman Dwight Hudson, who voted for the search but said he expected Hennessy stood a good chance to get the job anyway.

"The search is just going to come back and tell you Ralph is the right guy for the job," said Councilman Matt Watson, who voted for Hennessy's appointment and then for the search committee.

Pro Tem Scott Wilson said the city-parish should provide opportunities for its workers to advance in the ranks.

"If you can't appoint from within, then there's a problem with your hiring process down the line," said Trae Welch, who serves on the Metro Council and the airport commission and who argued in favor of appointing Hennessy to the position.

"I'll always stick up for the local people who are capable, and I'll give them the opportunity to lead," he added, saying that Hennessy has proven to be "a steady hand at the wheel" of airport operations.

In addition to working with airlines and travelers, the director oversees development of a large swath of nearby property. The airport is funded in large part from the companies like Coca-Cola's bottling plant that lease the land.

Local councilwoman Chauna Banks said she's concerned about getting the best use out of the land so it can serve areas like Scotlandville. Banks said she gets along well with Hennessy but wants to listen to new ideas for the airport because a search "stimulates creativity ... it just keeps your juices going."

In a brief interview, Hennessy said he respected the Metro Council's authority to appoint their preferred candidate and hoped they would show the same faith in him they've demonstrated in the past year he's served as the acting head of the airport by naming him to the permanent position.

This week was not the first time the council has sparred over airport leadership. Barbara Freiberg has requested a search committee before, and Welch has spoken in favor of hiring Hennessy outright, but neither could marshal enough support for their position until Wednesday.

Amid the debate, airport commission chairman Andrew McCandless resigned earlier this month, hinting at frustration with the hiring process. The commission meets regularly to discuss airport business, though they are officially only an advisory body; the Metro Council must sign off on any major decisions.

Now, a group of three council members and four airport commissioners will solicit resumes and send recommendations on the top three candidates on to the full Metro Council, which will make the final hiring decision.

Council members debated various forms for the search committee, including an even number of participants. At one point, councilwoman Tara Wicker suggested Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome's office break any ties; Wilson sharply disagreed.

"As far as the mayor goes, and no disrespect, I'm not at the table for any of her hires as far as (chief administrative officers), as far as police chiefs. The director works for us, we hire him, and I think it should be just the council."

Buddy Amoroso, Watson, Welch, Wicker and Wilson all voted to hire Hennessy for the permanent position, though the effort failed. In a subsequent vote, Banks, Donna Collins-Lewis, Freiberg, Erika Green, Chandler Loupe, Watson and Wicker voted in favor of a search committee, which passed. The specific members of the search committee were not named Wednesday.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.