Steve Burton, the chairman of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, died Sunday after complications from a recent heart transplant. He was 52.
Burton, a managing partner at the law firm of Broad and Cassel, was appointed to the aviation authority, which oversees Tampa International Airport, in July 2009.
“Steve Burton was a lion of a man. He was a champion for change and growth for our entire region and understood the significance of the airport as an economic engine,” said Tampa airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano in a statement released Sunday. “He believed in the potential of this airport to be a player internationally, and was instrumental in the development of policies to recruit international flights through cooperation with our community partners.
“My thoughts and prayers are with Steve’s family and friends,” Lopano said. “He will be missed.”
Burton was dedicated to airport business, said Janet Zink, director of communications at Tampa International.
Though he was unable to attend the past few authority meetings, he participated in those meetings by speaker phone, she said, and at the last meeting of the authority, Burton attended via telephone from his hospital bed.
Burton also served on the boards of Tampa’s Economic Development Corporation, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and was appointed to serve two terms on the Board of Trustees at the University of South Florida. He was a tireless Republican Party supporter and fundraiser.
Republican Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi wrote about Burton’s surgery and his passing on her Facebook page.
“Steve Burton took a turn for the worse last night after his heart transplant eight days ago. He fought so hard but after emergency surgery he passed away early this morning. Please pray for his many loved ones. Steve was a great man and is now in Heaven.”
Appointed by then Gov. Charlie Crist, Burton sparked controversy on the aviation authority board by opening a power struggle between board newcomers and the airport’s nationally regarded director Louis Miller.
The contentiousness continued until Miller quit, though he said it wasn’t over the acrimony on the board. Miller soon took a job as director of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
Burton charged that Miller did not do enough to recruit international air service, an allegation that raised the ire of some on the board, including then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
Fellow aviation authority member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist knew Burton had been in the hospital for an extended stay, but still his death came as a shock.
“Steve was a fighter,” Victor Crist said on Sunday. “He would never take no for an answer. He knew he would never lose; Steve would fight his way through this and succeed like he always does.
On the professional front, Burton was relentless in his efforts to get government and business running efficiently.
“Steve was all about good government, responsive government, accountability and efficiency,” Crist said. “At USF, he was an outspoken critic on how the university did business and what changes should be made for greater levels of accountability.
“It was the same way with the aviation authority,” he said. “He didn’t waste any time getting involved, learning, understanding and invoking change. He was at the forefront at changing everything at the airport; positioning us better to grow, to prosper and to compete and be more efficient and accountable.”
Burton also “was a top-notch attorney,” Crist said. “He worked his way up to head one of the most prestigious law firms in Florida and in Tampa. He was not just an administrator. He was a master of his craft, a lawyer’s lawyer.
“He was never shy to share his thoughts and opinions and always well repaired to defend them” Crist said. “He was the kind of person that if he was a friend, you never had to worry about your back.”