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Airport director had excellent reviews shortly before being pushed out

Airport Authority interviewing candidates to replace former Director Julie Wilsey
Published: Oct. 25, 2021 at 10:49 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Documents obtained by WECT reveal that long time Wilmington International Airport (ILM) executive Julie Wilsey had excellent reviews just months before the Airport Authority decided to terminate her as airport director in June. It cost the public $315,000 for the Authority to buy her out of her contract, and many questions remain unanswered about why that was necessary.

The Airport Authority has spent the last several months advertising for a new director. They are seeking a candidate with qualifications that appear less than or equivalent to Wilsey’s.

In a performance evaluation dated February 3, 2021, Airport Authority Chair Donna Girardot wrote, “Julie has come as close as possible to receiving a perfect score for successfully navigating the unprecedented circumstances of 2020.” Giving her an overall score of 4.76 out of 5, they called her an “outstanding leader [who] leads by example. She has the self-confidence to make the right decisions under difficult circumstances.” They added that she had “good common sense,” and “has instilled a culture of teamwork for handling challenges and achieving success.”

The only room for improvement listed on the review has to do with her relationship with the Airport Authority.

“As discussed last year, it is recommended that Julie and staff should be more proactive in informing the appropriate Authority member(s) of situations, correspondence and meeting requests that could lead to controversy, or worse, litigation,” the review states. However, the very next line indicates, “Julie has probably had one of her finest years maintaining an excellent relationship with the Authority.”

Wilsey’s termination came as a shock to many in the community. The highly respected United States Military Academy at West Point graduate spent 22 years with ILM, the last six at the helm as airport director. She served on the Governor’s Aviation Task Force, and during her time as director, the airport added United Airlines as one of its carriers, and several new direct destinations: Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Boston (BOS), Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD), and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). Additionally, the airport began and nearly completed a $60 million terminal expansion under her leadership.

When reached by phone after news broke of Wilsey’s termination, Girardot gave few details about what prompted the decision. But she did confirm that the Airport Authority voted unanimously to part ways with Wilsey. According to the terms of her contract, the airport could terminate Wilsey’s notice at any time with 30 days written notice, but would have to pay her severance of one year’s salary and benefits.

Despite the requirement of a 30-day notice, Wisley said she was asked not to return to the office on June 11, just four days after she was notified she was out of a job. The Authority did, however, leave her on the payroll.

When asked about tips WECT had received on June 11 that Wilsey had been escorted off the property and was no longer on the job, Girardot denied it.

“No she was not!” Girardot responded by email. “She had a load of personal effects and we offered to help carry them down for her. She had at least three boxes of personal effects and a bag — we could not let her struggle. And it saved her multiple trips.”

Trying to understand a possible reason for their decision to part ways with Wilsey, WECT requested copies of emails from board members and Wilsey in the months leading up to her departure. The only one that seemed potentially relevant was written by Wilsey to two board members the same day of her performance evaluation.

“I am very uncomfortable about meeting with... [specific General Aviation] pilots... I do not feel it is my obligation to meet with them just because they request to do so. We have documented history of their hostility and efforts to get me fired at ILM. This was led by an Authority member, Dr. Jonathan Crane,” Wilsey wrote. “The Authority and staff have listened to the GA pilots over the past 10+ years, and we cannot give them cheap hangars, fuel, and maintenance for their private planes.... These chronic complainers continue with the same charges and personal attacks on my character and aviation expertise. They are taking valuable time that I need to dedicate to the Terminal Expansion, ILM Business Park, Air Service Development, and COVID 19 recovery. I deserve your backing and protection from the most recent attacks...” Wilsey wrote.

It is unclear whether the issues with the General Aviation pilots, which had been going on for years, had anything to do with the Airport Authority’s decision in June to part ways with Wilsey. But none of the other correspondence WECT obtained from the airport clearly references an effort to terminate her.

In addition to the $315,000 the Airport Authority spent to buy Wilsey out of her contract, the Authority authorized spending up to $39,000 on an executive search firm to hire find her replacement, and $9,308 in legal fees related to terminating her contract.

Gary Broughton, the former deputy director at ILM, delayed his retirement plans to serve as interim director since Wilsey’s departure.

Multiple sources report the Wilmington International Airport Authority is now interviewing candidates for airport director. Airport officials would not confirm those tips, and simply referred WECT to a memo announcing a closed session meeting Monday morning to discuss a “personnel matter.” Airport officials did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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