Frustrated after spending a year and a half as interim aviation director, Baton Rouge airport chief Ralph Hennessy announced Friday that he's leaving the city-parish.
He described being left in limbo while the Metro Council has dragged its feet, recently hiring a search consultant that could add months more to the process.
"I've been waiting and waiting, and I was approached by a firm, and I said, 'Well, let's talk," Hennessy said. "It was a deal that I could not pass up."
Hennessy said his new employer has asked him not to reveal his new position until next Tuesday. Another significant event is also happening next week: on Monday, the airport search committee will meet with their consultants to discuss hiring a permanent director, now with more of a rush on their hands.
Hennessy has been at the Baton Rouge airport for 16 years and previously served as assistant aviation director before being promoted after his predecessor, Anthony Marino, announced his resignation in September 2016.
Hennessy’s departure, scheduled for on or around May 10, will leave the public airport without a director or assistant director.
“There’s somebody on the staff that’s going to have to step up on an interim basis. Who that is, I don’t know,” said Trae Welch, a metro councilman, airport commissioner and longtime aviator.
Welch championed Hennessy's case, saying he’s proven himself to be a capable leader. Now the airport must find an interim head who to get a permanent hire up to speed and who will then have to hire a new lieutenant.
“I just think it bodes poorly,” Welch said, trailing off. “I’d just hate to see it go backward.”
Airport Commission Chairman Cleve Dunn Jr. said he was surprised to receive Hennessy’s letter of resignation Friday morning. Dunn said he thought Hennessy was prepared to compete with the “best and brightest” candidates.
Councilwoman Chauna Banks, who serves on the search committee and whose district includes the airport, said her desire to go forward with a search wasn’t about Hennessy. Rather, she said, she wanted to act in the city's best interests by going through an equitable process to select the next permanent airport director.
The key issue for Councilwoman Barbara Freiberg was just about finding the best ideas. Could Baton Rouge attract another airline? Can it better market the land that it owns and leases to businesses? Can it reach the next level?
“I don’t know, that’s the reason for having a search,” she said.
Pro Tem Scott Wilson, who supported Hennessy, said the circumstances that led him to walk away are indicative of a larger problem. Baton Rouge allows long-serving managers to retire and be rehired and keep working while they collect benefits. People always say they hate the practice because it impedes the promotion of younger staffers, Wilson said. But in this case, he said, the city-parish passed on an opportunity to name a qualified second-in-command to a directorship post.
“There’s nothing wrong with moving up. … I think we’re losing some experience,” Wilson said. “I think we should’ve made (Hennessy) director when we had the opportunity.”
The search committee was already scheduled to hold a meeting with its new consultants on Monday at 3 p.m. at the airport. The search committee is made of Metro Council members and airport commissioners. Dunn said that with Hennessy out, they will have to expedite their search for a permanent director.
The city-parish has not advertised the position or collected any applications, commissioners said. Dunn wants to have a new director in place in two or three months, which he thinks is doable if the consultants, commission, committee and council can all work together.
The plan is to bring three finalists before the Metro Council, which has final hiring authority. Search committee members have split on whether to name a preferred candidate, but without Hennessy, some may change their minds, Dunn said.
The group also will have to come up with a transition plan to find someone to replace Hennessy when he leaves in a few weeks.
The outgoing airport leader said he wouldn't endorse a particular candidate to replace him for the time being, but if the Metro Council approaches him to help evaluate the permanent airport leader, he'd give informal advice.