John E. Potter was named to head the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority on Wednesday, six months after finishing a decade-long stint overseeing the financially beleaguered U.S. Postal Service.
Approved 11-2 by the airports authority (MWAA) board, Mr. Potter will be paid a base salary of $350,000 to head the agency as it oversees a $6 billion project to extend the Metro rail line to Washington Dulles International Airport and into Loudoun County.
The salary will be more than the base earnings at his former job, but less than what he was paid last year by the Postal Service. The Washington Times reported in December that Mr. Potter pocketed nearly $800,000 in salary, incentive bonus payments, pension and other payments in 2010.
The Postal Service reported $8 billion in financial losses the same year.
MWAA Chairman Charles Snelling said the board was concerned with what Mr. Potter accomplished during his 32-year career with the Postal Service and not what he was paid. During the 10 years Mr. Potter served as postmaster general, he oversaw a $3 billion budget and reduced staff from about 780,000 to about 585,000.
“What he made is not a matter of interest to us,” Mr. Snelling said. “What we want to know is whether we’re getting what we’re paying.”
The two MWAA board members who voted against Mr. Potter - Shirley Robinson Hall and Richard Carter - said they had wanted someone who had past experience running airports. But Mr. Snelling said that overseeing the Postal Service during its most troubled time gave Mr. Potter the needed experience to lead MWAA.
“I can’t think of anything much harder to run than the post office,” Mr. Snelling said. “He had good labor relations, satisfaction went up all the time, the mail was delivered on time and he did that within tremendous constraints of Congress.”
Mr. Potter’s Postal Service salary was capped by statute at $273,926, but he was eligible to receive additional money through special incentive compensation to be paid out in later years. His overall compensation package in 2010 totaled $798,000, according to public records.
MWAA Vice Chairman Thomas Davis III said the board would have been hard-pressed to find anyone running a multimillion dollar business in the private sector who was paid less.
“I am not hung up on a pay differential,” Mr. Davis said. “If you want talent, you gotta pay for it.”
But Pete Sepp, vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the Postal Service’s identity as a quasi-governmental agency invites questions about pay gradients that would also be asked of CEOs in the private sector.
“It’s a question that many shareholders would ask of CEOs at entirely private firms,” he said. “And the post office sort of straddles that world between being a direct government agency and a business.”
MWAA operates Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports and the Dulles Toll Road, along with constructing the Dulles rail extension. The agency recently stirred up controversy by opting to build an underground Metro rail station at Dulles airport, instead of a less-expensive station above ground.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general announced this week that the agency will conduct an audit of MWAA’s management of the rail project, after a review was requested by Rep. Frank Wolf, Virginia Republican.