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Massport director’s pay raise on hold

Thomas Kinton, Massport executive director, earns a base salary of $295,000 a year, making him one of the state’s highest paid officials. His contract expires in August of next year. Thomas Kinton, Massport executive director, earns a base salary of $295,000 a year, making him one of the state’s highest paid officials. His contract expires in August of next year. (Travis Dove for The Boston Globe)
By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / November 12, 2010

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The Massachusetts Port Authority board of directors yesterday abruptly withdrew a proposal to boost executive director Thomas Kinton’s salary by $22,000 to $317,000 a year after the Patrick administration’s sole appointee on the board objected.

Board member Jeffrey Mullan, who also serves as Governor Deval Patrick’s transportation secretary, said such a pay raise, scheduled to be voted on in executive session at today’s board meeting, would be unwise, given the state of the economy.

“The action was ill-advised and untimely,’’ Mullan said in a written statement. “I recognize the importance of the role Tom plays and the work that he has done, but know also that Governor Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Murray have rightly insisted that the salaries of all public-sector executives be considered in light of the economic realities that many Massachusetts families are dealing with.’’

But the pay raise is not necessarily dead.

Massport board chairman John Quelch said the board wanted to delay its debate until the governor returns from his California vacation.

“We’ve not been able to secure the opportunity to discuss fully with him, and have his people discuss fully, the proposal,’’ he said. “In our judgment, this is a matter of significant importance to him. He’s made a policy statement on this matter that his staff has to respect. There isn’t any great urgency to the matter. “

The Massport board acquiesced to Mullan’s request, even though he is the only member of the seven-member board appointed by Patrick. Until Patrick fills two vacancies and decides whether to replace Quelch, whose term has expired, it is unclear whether the governor would prevail if a vote were taken.

Kinton, a 35-year veteran of the agency that runs Logan International Airport, earns a base salary of $295,000 a year, making him one of the state’s highest-paid officials. Under his five-year employment contract, which expires next August, he is also entitled to annual raises, bonuses, a car, and cash for up to three weeks of unused vacation, or roughly $17,000.

When he retires, he will be able to take advantage of one of the most generous benefits offered by the agency: He will qualify to receive more than $400,000 in unused sick leave.

Kinton is grandfathered under an old Massport policy that allows employees to receive 100 percent of the cash value of their accumulated sick days, 478 of them, according to a 2009 compensation report. He will also collect a pension equal to 80 percent of his salary in his highest-earning years.

The controversial sick-leave policy was changed in 2006 when the Massport board, under pressure from Governor Mitt Romney, revamped it to bring it in line with other state agencies.

Massport officials would not comment on the proposal, which would raise his salary 7 1/2 percent, or say when his proposed five-year contract extension will be reconsidered. Kinton could not be reached for comment.

“I have no comment on anything that would be discussed in executive session,’’ said Massport spokesman Matthew Brelis.

Brelis said personnel, legal, and real estate matters are generally taken up behind closed doors until there is a resolution, when they are voted on publicly.

One Massport official who did not want his name used because he is not authorized to speak to the news media said the agency runs one of the busiest airports in the country and needs a “top-flight professional.’’

“When you have a complicated, big capital asset and security and terrorism are in the mix, having someone who is a top-flight, competent professional who cares about security matters a lot,’’ the official said.

Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation president Michael Widmer said, “It’s important to pay for high-quality managers, and Tom certainly is, by all accounts, a high performer.’’

But, Widmer added, “it undoubtedly would have been better to show greater restraint in these difficult economic times.’’

Since Kinton took over the agency in 2006, the airport has attracted new airlines, four in 2009 alone, and made significant security improvements, including the use of full-body scanners, concrete barriers, and shatterproof glass. John Pistole, head of the Transportation Security Administration, recently called Logan “one of the best, most secure airports in the country.’’

In an October report to the Massport board, Kinton hailed a new lighting system designed to make the airport’s runways safer and said the number of passengers using the airport had risen for the 15th straight month.

Compensation at the state’s independent and quasi-public agencies has long been a controversial topic on Beacon Hill.

Earlier this year, the head of the state pension board, Michael Travaglini, resigned, citing efforts by lawmakers to curb his earnings and those of his staff. Travaglini, whose base pay was $322,000 a year, also received bonuses that varied with the performance of the investment funds he oversaw. The Legislature wanted to limit such bonuses, though those measures have not yet passed.

A panel chosen by Patrick last year to review compensation paid to heads of the quasi-public agencies concluded that the salaries were not excessive, but that the perks, such as the sick pay and vacation buyouts and bonuses, were out of place in government.

The governor created the commission in March 2009 as he tried to quell the furor that erupted after he attempted to give state Senator Marian Walsh a $175,000-a-year agency job. She ultimately withdrew her name from consideration.

The Patrick administration has cut salaries as administrators at the quasi-public agencies, like the MBTA, have been replaced.

The current MBTA general manager makes $145,000, while his predecessor made $255,000. Jon Kingsdale, former executive director of the Health Connector Authority, earned $238,000 a year. His successor, Glen Shor, makes $168,000.

Katie Johnston Chase and Sean Murphy of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.