TAMPA - Mayor Pam Iorio fired a broadside Thursday at Tampa's embattled interim port director. At least publicly, Zelko Kirincich didn't flinch.
The mayor, citing serious problems with how the Tampa Port Authority is running, proposed replacing Kirincich with retired GTE executive William Starkey.
"The port is so important and we need strong leadership," Iorio said. "The staff needs direction and so does the maritime community. There needs to be a clean break and a fresh start."
Iorio has unmatched clout within the city but just one vote on the Port Authority's five-member governing board, which is expected to hold an emergency meeting next week to decide Kirincich's fate.
In a prepared statement, Kirincich said he looked forward to continuing at the public agency, where he is paid $178,568 annually, and offered to meet with port commissioners "to discuss any changes or improvements they feel I need to make in order to continue excellence at the Tampa Port Authority."
Tensions between businesses and the agency that manages the port's public land boiled over at a board meeting Tuesday. Tenants and port users complained that port authority officials took too long to conduct business, withheld information and wasn't straight with them.
Iorio called the situation an embarrassment and said she wouldn't support Kirincich, interim director since March, for the job of permanent director.
The next day, Kirincich abruptly fired the agency's general counsel, Dale Bohner, and real estate director Peter Ferri.
Iorio wrote port commissioners Thursday that she had great concerns about the port, which generates 107,000 jobs in West Central Florida and more than $13-billion a year in economic activity, according to a study conducted for the Port Authority.
"This major economic engine requires competent management at every level and a firm hand at the wheel," she wrote. "I propose that immediate action be taken to restore stability to the port's management."
Starkey, 69, pledged to stay only until the commissioners chose a new director after a nationwide search. He would serve without pay, accepting only reimbursement for expenses.
He was a major figure in Tampa Bay area business for a decade starting in the mid '80s. Starkey arrived as president of General Telephone Co. of Florida, the telephone provider for 1.3-million customers in west and central Florida. He later ran GTE's nationwide informational services division while living in Tampa.
Starkey became familiar with the port as chairman of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce and its economic development arm, the Committee of 100. Retired since 1994, he doesn't profess to have expertise in maritime business.
"I'm just a guy with management experience. I don't have any port experience," said Starkey, a registered Republican who says he gave $100 to Iorio's mayoral campaign. "I want to do anything I can to help the good people there. I don't have an agenda."
Port Commissioner Gladstone Cooper called Iorio's idea a "very positive recommendation," but stopped short of saying he'd vote for Starkey.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms, a critic of Kirincich, said she knows little about Starkey but will likely back him.
"We need to act," she said. "We want to make sure we have a person who's sound, stable and will act rationally."
Kirincich, 45, was hired in March 1996 as deputy port director and added the post of chief operating officer three years later.
He was named interim director in March when George Williamson took an executive position with a construction materials company in West Palm Beach. The board also voted to have a national search for a permanent director.
But three commissioners appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush - Cooper, Joseph Diaz and chairman Lance Ringhaver - voted in June to abandon the search and give Kirincich the job. Iorio and Storms, the only elected board members, voted no. The decision, made without advance public notice, created an uproar and Kirincich turned down the offer the next day.
Representatives of port businesses took different sides Thursday over who was at fault at the Port Authority. Eugene Masters, president of the Propeller Club of Tampa, said Kirincich was ultimately responsible for the mess and had to go.
"When the captain runs the ship aground, even if the navigator is responsible, they still get rid of him," said Masters. The chief executive of the port's largest ship yard, however, blamed Bohner, Ferri and Williamson - Kirincich's predecessor.
"I don't think Zelko created this problem," said Joe Hartley of Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co. "He inherited a difficult position and did his best to get through tough times."