Airport board should make full disclosure
March 25, 2001
The board of the Meridian Airport Authority should make a full and complete public disclosure about the events which led to the resignation last week of Executive Vice President Mark Cowart. That would be a good start at beginning to rebuild the public trust that vanished along with money from the airport's long term parking fees.
Cowart was allowed to resign nine days after admitting to the board he embezzled funds, according to board minutes. In action reflected in now-amended minutes of a March 13 board meeting, Cowart was to keep his job, although at a reduced salary of $47,500, go on probation, seek counseling to deal with a problem with theft, and agree to a few other conditions.
Last Thursday, after an executive session which excluded the public and press and, later, under a media spotlight to which they were clearly unaccustomed board members accepted Cowart's resignation. Cowart exited through a back door. Board members had nothing to say. The case was turned over to the state auditor, who will investigate and make a determination of the next steps, including whether criminal charges or restitution are appropriate.
Cowart isn't likely to touch money again as an employee of the Meridian Regional Airport.
But the earlier conditions under which Cowart was to be retained even after the board learned he admitted taking cash from "honor boxes" in long term parking lots remain to be explained. The board overrode action of its executive director and, apparently, ignored the advice of its lawyer, who subsequently resigned.
In order for confidence and trust to be restored, the full story needs to be told by the people who know it best members of the board, the people who hold the positions of trust and accountability.
While no board appointed by a politician is immune to political pressure, neither should it operate under an illusion of independence. Members must remain as free as possible from the sometimes deleterious influence of family or political connections.
Board members may be legally bound not to give details of their "personnel" actions against Cowart. But they should be willing to tell what events, contacts, discussions and influences led to their March 13 decision and then what caused them to change their minds on March 22.
To their credit, board members ultimately dealt with the situation. Now, if they also care about regaining the public's trust for the valuable unit of government they represent, they will tell the rest of us what happened.