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Stu Witt to Remain Head of Mojave Spaceport for Extra 6 Months

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
July 22, 2014
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Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO/General Manager Stu Witt is postponing his retirement by six months.

Witt had planned to step down no later than July 1, 2015. However, last week the Mojave Spaceport Board of Directors approved a six month extension until January 2016.

The extension is apparently related to the board’s meandering effort to replace Witt, who announced his intention to step down last year. Board President JoAnn Painter told the Antelope Valley Press the board is still working on a “template for managing the succession” that would be put into place six months before Witt departs.

The newspaper quotes Witt as looking forward to sticking around a bit longer. “Exciting events are on the books for the next 18 months involving increased flight testing and launch activity from several tenants,” he said.

Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic are set to resume powered flights of the suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle later this summer. XCOR is eying the first quarter of 2015 for initial flight tests of its Lynx suborbital space plane. Other air and space tenants also conduct testing at the desert airport.

The process of replacing Witt has proceeded in fits and starts. Earlier in the year, board members Jim Balentine and Marie Walker were appointed to a search committee and tasked with developing a set of criteria for hiring Witt’s replacement.

The pair didn’t come up with any criteria; instead, they recommended hiring a professional head hunter they had consulted with to find a replacement. Walker explained that the consultant had mentioned a number of criteria and factors that she and Balentine hadn’t thought of on their own.

Then-Chairman Dick Rutan was none-too-pleased with that bit of work. During a meeting, he repeatedly tried to appoint board member Allen Peterson to join Balentine and Walker on the search committee.  Peterson repeatedly refused.

Rutan and Walker were soon gone. Rutan left the board due to the demands of a consulting job working on a new type of aircraft engine. Walker, who owns a company called Fiberset that’s located on the airport, cited pressing business concerns as the reason for her departure.

It was later revealed that Fiberset was significantly behind in its rent to the airport. The company recently paid its back rent and moved out of its leased building, which the board quickly voted to demolish. Fiberset is now subleasing space in another building on airport property.

The board appointed Bill Deaver and David Evans to fill out the remainder of the open terms.  Those new members have had to get up to speed on a number of issues, including severe problems with the airport’s accounting department.

On the eve of a delayed audit in February, long-time Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Erika Westawski suddenly resigned her position without notice and disappeared. Airport officials and outside auditors have spent months trying to make heads and tails of the airport’s books.

Witt has said that no money was stolen, but that Westawski — who had worked for the airport for 9 years — was simply terrible at her job. The records were a mess. and Westawski never sent bills for some money that the airport was owed. Instead of have more than $5 million in reserves, the airport found the number was about half that amount. Things were so bad the airport has hired an outside auditor to review records from the four previous years.

In recent years, officials spent millions on upgrades to the airport based on inflated funding reserves. Those improvements included the extension of utilities to the north side test area and renovations on the old Pool Building on Poole Street to serve as as an events center. The board voted to name the facility after their outgoing CEO despite Witt’s objections to the move.

The accounting mess has cast a pall over what was supposed to be Witt’s last year on a job he has held since 2002. The airport has shaved its budget for the current fiscal year, which began on July 1. Officials will not be spending much on additional projects outside of operational and maintenance.

It also has damaged Witt’s reputation as a strong manager credited for building up the spaceport as a global leader in civilian flight testing. Questions have been raised about how this had gone on as long as it had, and about the lack of financial controls that have been since put into place.

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