COLLIER COUNTY — A local civil rights organization put its weight behind Collier County Airport Authority Executive Director Chris Curry, suggesting that some of the County Commission's efforts directed at Curry have been racially motivated.
The efforts of the NAACP of Collier County came as commissioners reconsidered Curry's recent contract extension. In a December 31, letter to commissioners, Harold G. Weeks, the organization's president, touted Curry as an "accomplished professional" whose tenure has been a "remarkable success."
"The slightly zealous manner in which certain commissioners have grown preoccupied with and fixated on Chris Curry reeks of an animus which would be distressing enough had it been directed at any one of Collier County's public servants," Weeks wrote. "That such efforts have so disproportionately dwelled on an African American male, and Collier County's only person of color serving as a county manager, harkens back to something which Collier County's citizens — regardless of their race, creed and political affiliation — have long believed to be a nefarious vestige of a bygone era."
Commissioners last month voted to reconsider Curry's contract extension. On Wednesday, they voted 3-2 to allow Curry to keep his 4 percent raise, but rescinded his two-year contract extension and removed a provision that would give him eight additional weeks of severance pay.
Commissioners kept Curry's raise at the direction of County Attorney Jeff Klatzkow.
Commission Vice Chairman Tom Henning asked late last year that Curry's contract be reconsidered.
"Since the airport is losing so much money and there are less activities going on, I think we need to look at the amount of taxpayer dollars that we spend on the airport," he said. "I think we need to change the management at the airport. ... There has been so much drama at the Immokalee Airport. It creates a situation that is not business-friendly."
Henning said certain things that have been done at the airport, including keeping commissioners in the dark about security plans and questions over work being done with airport grants, have contributed to his concerns.
"I want the Immokalee airport to be friendly to future users, current users and past users," he said.
Weeks spoke on Curry's behalf at Wednesday's commission meeting and said Curry has been an exemplary steward of the county's resources.
"It is important to our community and it is important to the community of Collier County that a person of Mr. Curry's character and intelligence be in this community," he said.
The comments followed his letter, in which he wrote that since being hired as the director of the Airport Authority, Curry has been "tirelessly endeavored" to modernizing Collier County's airports and ensuring that airport operations function safely, efficiently and profitably.
"While of course withholding judgement on the motivations behind the decisions and actions undertaken by individual commissioners, we would be remiss if we failed to point out the pernicious effects that the commission's efforts have already had," Weeks wrote, "as well as the detriment — both real and symbolic — likely to ensue if the commission persists on this course."
None of the commissioners addressed Week's letter during the meeting. Curry said he does not believe that commissioners were racially motivated when they voted to reconsider his contract.
"I do believe that there are some people that I work with or tried to work with in Immokalee that may have different motives," he said. "But if I thought race was an issue, I wouldn't be in Collier County. ... I love Collier County. I love the citizens I have had a chance to meet. And I plan to be here."
Some who clashed with Curry in the past denied that race played a role in their disagreements with him.
"None whatsoever. Absolutely none," said Steve Fletcher, owner of Fletcher's Flying Service, when asked if race played a role in his disputes with Curry.
Fletcher filed a lawsuit against Curry and Immokalee Airport Manager Thomas Vergo, who is white. He said he feels harassed by Curry about things like landing on the grass and leaving his airplane running while he is outside of it. Both are common practices, he said.
"He (Curry) habitually came after me," he said.
Marvin Courtright, an Immokalee Airport tenant who has also appeared before commissioners to criticize Curry, said he thought Curry would be an asset when he took the job and congratulated him. Still, he said he wasn't surprised to see the topic of race raised in the discussion of Curry's contract.
"I knew this was coming a long time ago," he said. "Ultimately, it had to go in that direction."
Staff writer Brent Batten contributed to this report