2019 Conference Speakers

Rans Black
Jackson Airports District Office Manager, FAA

Rans has over 22 years’ experience with the FAA’s Airports Division, having served in staff and management positions in both the Atlanta and Jackson Airport District Offices. He has been the manager of the Jackson Airports District Office since 2003, overseeing the planning and development of the 150 airports in Alabama and Mississippi. His work experience also includes 6 years as an Army Officer and 2 years as an airport engineering consultant. He is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, a registered professional engineer, and a private pilot.

Tommy Booth

Tommy Booth serves as the State Aeronautics Director for MDOT. He has been with MDOT since 1999. Prior to that he was with the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, Waggoner Engineering, and Ergon, Inc. He is active with the National Association of State Aviation Officials where he serves as chairman of the Engineering Task Group and is a member of the AASHTO Standing Committee on Aviation. He graduated from Mississippi State University in Civil Engineering.

Rick Cleveland
Sports Writer

Rick Cleveland began writing sports for his hometown newspaper, The Hattiesburg American, as a 13-year-old eighth grader. Fifty-three years later, he’s still writing sports and has become the most accomplished sports journalist in Mississippi history. As a writer, columnist and editor, he has won scores of journalism awards on state, regional and national levels. Recently, he was named Mississippi’s Sportswriter of the Year for a record 11th time. He won it for the first time in 1975. In 2011, he became the first sports writer ever to be honored with the Richard Wright Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Excellence. He has authored four books. After leaving the Clarion Ledger in 2011, he became the executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. A year after he retired from that job, he was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. Last summer he was inducted in the inaugural class of the Hattiesburg Hall of Fame, and last fall he went into the University of Southern Mississippi journalism and communications Hall of Fame. Currently, Rick writes several times a week for Mississippi Today, a digital newspaper. He also writes a weekly column that is syndicated in 28 Mississippi newspapers.

Honorable Tom King

Tom King is the Southern District Transportation Commissioner on the Mississippi Transportation Commission. He previously served as a state lawmaker in both the Mississippi House of Representatives and the Mississippi Senate. During his 19 years in the legislature his leadership brokered many bills designed to better the lives of Mississippians. As Chairman of the Senate Highways and Transportation Committee, King authored resolutions that honored the achievements of persons throughout his district and the state. Most notably, King authored Senate Bill 3181, the $300 million bond bill for highways and bridges, and Senate Bill 3014, known as the John Paul Frerer Bicycle Act, which promotes safety for cyclists on roadways. King also authored Senate Bill 2514 that created the Mississippi Wireless Communications Commission, which ensures that the state’s emergency responders and law enforcement have the means to communicate regardless of any disaster that may occur. King is a Veteran of the Vietnam War, having served his country in the Air Force as an Air Policeman. He is affiliated with the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, American Legion and VFW. He has received many professional awards and honors including 2011 Mississippi Municipal League Legislator of the Year, 2010 Hattiesburg’s Veteran of the Year, American Legion Meritorious Service Award in 2007 and Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Legislator of the Year in 2002. In his position as Transportation Commissioner, King represents approximately one million citizens in the southern 27 counties of Mississippi. He is the first Republican to hold the post of Transportation Commissioner in the Southern District. King’s work as Transportation Commissioner has focused on maintaining Mississippi’s transportation infrastructure, job creation and economic development in south Mississippi. King is no stranger to south Mississippi as he was born in Hattiesburg. He attended Petal High School and graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s degree.

Michael O’Harra

Michael O’Harra was appointed Regional Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Southern Region in January 2018. Mr. O’Harra serves as the senior agency official within the eight-state region including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, as well as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Mr. O’Harra serves as the FAA Administrator’s primary representative to Congressional, state, local and tribal officials, aviation industry, educational institutions, civic organizations and other Federal agencies, and spokesperson for the Agency within his geographic area of responsibility. He is responsible for outreach activities to stakeholders and local communities regarding environmental impacts and noise management issues, as well as information sharing on initiatives such as NextGen, Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) integration, Commercial Space, airport improvements and airspace and procedure changes. Mr. O’Harra provides leadership for the 24/7 Regional Operations Centers (ROCs) that communicate information on aircraft accidents and other emergencies impacting aviation operations to appropriate internal and external entities.

Mr. O’Harra’s previous appointment was as the Deputy Regional Administrator for the FAA Southwest Region in February 2008, which included serving as the Regional Emergency Transportation Coordinator (RETCO) to ensure effective transportation emergency planning and response for incidents of national significance for the Department of Transportation’s Region 6.

His FAA career also includes various leadership positions as an acting Chief Information Officer and as the national Operational Integration Manager, where he was instrumental in the effective oversight of several major capacity initiatives. Mr. O’Harra also chaired the FAA Airport Obstruction Standards Committee (AOSC) working group that was responsible for developing corporate policy solutions to highly visible issues in the airport environment. He previously held positions in private industry for nearly a decade spanning both aviation and aerospace fields.

Mr. O’Harra graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of Maryland. Michael and his wife, Cristy, have three daughters.

Sharon Sarmiento, Ph.D.
Principal, Unison Consulting, Inc.

Sharon has led Unison’s airport economics practice for more than 22 years. Her consulting practice includes transportation demand modeling and forecasting, airport market assessment, benefit-cost analysis, economic impact studies, data analytics, and survey research and data analysis. Sharon earned a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of California, Irvine, where she specialized in transportation economics, urban economics, and applied econometrics. After earning her Ph.D., she worked as a post-doctoral research associate at the UC Institute of Transportation Studies and as a scientist appointee for Argonne National Laboratories before joining Unison to work in the aviation industry.  Sharon holds two other graduate degrees: a master’s degree in Mathematical Behavioral Sciences from University of California, Irvine, and a master’s degree in International and Development Economics (with honors) from Yale University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Business Economics from the University of the Philippines (cum laude).

Shelly Simi
President and CEO, National Association of State Aviation Officials

With over 25 years of extensive experience as an aviation and aerospace executive, Shelly Simi has been instrumental in promoting and enhancing major corporate and association initiatives throughout the industry. Working with key stakeholders including government representatives, association leaders, corporate executives, and industry partners, she has marketed emerging technologies that are impacting the way we think about transportation and mobility through visibility/brand awareness, increasing customer investment/company growth, and enhancing membership participation. 

Before joining NASAO, Simi served as Director, Corporate Communications & Public Affairs for Aurora Flight Sciences Corp., a Boeing Company. Simi leads the industry outreach strategies, working with corporate partners and stakeholders, to create integrated communications programs and thought-leadership messaging to showcase the autonomy technology that is revolutionizing the transportation arena. 

Prior to Aurora, Simi led the industry relations and public affairs in Corporate Communications, for Jeppesen, A Boeing Company, the world’s leading aviation charting and training company and for Boeing Air Traffic Management. Simi was responsible for outreach efforts with industry stakeholders and direct customer and media relations to elevate Boeing’s Digital Aviation capabilities in modernizing the nation’s air traffic management system. Prior to Jeppesen, Simi was PR counsel and media relations director at Adam Aircraft, manufacturer of the all composite centerline twin piston A500 and the A700 AdamJet, a new clean-sheet design VLJ (very light jet). Before joining Adam Aircraft, she ran her own company, Simi Communications & Event Planning located outside Annapolis, Maryland, which focused on media relations, communications and meeting planning activities for aviation and transportation. 

For over 15 years, Simi was part of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) in Washington, DC. As Vice President of Communications, Simi was the industry spokesperson and educator at GAMA, working daily with both the news media and the aviation community in promoting general aviation and the manufacturers of general aviation aircraft, engines, avionics and related equipment. Before joining GAMA, Simi worked as a Flight Operations/Fuel Coordinator for Federal Express (FedEx) Corporation in Memphis, Tennessee.

Simi is a Founding Board Member of Women in Aviation, International. She has served as a contributing editor for Aviation for Women magazine and serves on the WAI Conference Planning Committee and Pioneer Hall of Fame Selection Committee. She was also President of the Aero Club of Washington and is a past Board of Trustee member of the University Aviation Association. Simi is a co-founder and past chairman of the National Coalition for Aviation (and Space) Education and a founding member of the Aviation Communications Coalition of Washington.

Simi was inducted as a pioneer into the Women in Aviation Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2015. She was presented the 1999 University Aviation Association Estridge Award in recognition of her dedicated service to aerospace education. In 1997, the National Coalition for Aviation Education honored Simi with the Mervin K. Strickler, Jr. Aviation Education Leadership Award for her commitment and outstanding contributions to aviation education.

She attended George Washington University’s Public Relations Certificate Program in Washington, DC and holds a Bachelor of Commercial Aviation degree with a minor in Flight Operations from Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.

Jeff Wagner
Shareholder, Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz. P.C.

Jeff Wagner, a shareholder in the Firm’s Jackson office, focuses his practice on public/governmental law and commercial transactional work. Mr. Wagner has extensive experience in public law matters, including the financing of public projects, public procurements and construction matters. Mr. Wagner regularly works with airports on all types of procurement, contracting and regulatory issues. Mr. Wagner served as counsel to the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority for over twenty years and has served as special counsel to the March Joint Powers Authority and the March Inland Port Airport Authority (Riverside, California) on Federal Aviation Administration regulatory issues. Mr. Wagner is general counsel to the Mississippi Airports Association. Mr. Wagner also helps clients in complying with regulatory requirements in other transportation infrastructure projects.

In addition to his public/governmental law work, Mr. Wagner helps clients in structuring and closing all types of complex financial transactions. Mr. Wagner has significant experience working with lenders and borrowers using federal and state loan guaranty programs, including programs through the United States Department of Agriculture, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development and the United States Small Business Administration. Mr. Wagner also represents clients in all types of affordable housing development.

Mr. Wagner’s experience has allowed him to develop an understanding of the organizational and practical considerations necessary to the achievement of a successful and timely result in all types of large and complex projects.

Shad White
Mississippi State Auditor

Shad White grew up in Sandersville, Mississippi – population 731 – in a blue-collar family. His father and grandfather were oilfield pumpers, and his mother and grandmother were teachers. On the weekends, his father was music minister at their small country church, and his mother played the organ. Later in life, his father served as mayor of their small town.

After attending public school, Shad earned his undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Mississippi. He studied as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, earning a master’s in economic history. Shad holds a law degree from Harvard Law School, where he learned the meaning of fighting for your values even when it’s unpopular. While there, Shad served as President of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal association, and brought speakers to campus to defend the legality of public prayer, the morality of work and free enterprise, and the importance of traditional moral values.

In 2011, Shad served as Director of Policy to then-Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant. Four years later, Gov. Bryant tapped Shad to manage his $4 million re-election campaign. Since then, Shad practiced law in the private sector, served as a special prosecutor in Rankin County where he successfully prosecuted felonies involving the family of an elected official, and, most recently, served as Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute. At the Mississippi Justice Institute, Shad filed and led cases against public officials when they violated Mississippi’s open government and ethics laws. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Mississippi, earned a certificate in forensic accounting (the use of accounting to detect fraud) from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and previously worked as a fellow at a national think tank on state policy. In 2018, Gov. Bryant appointed Shad as State Auditor.

Today Shad and his wife, Rina, live in Rankin County and are faithful members at St. Richard Church. Rina’s parents immigrated to the United States from India over 30 years ago in search of a better life. Her father practiced medicine in Picayune and Slidell for three decades and their family attended St. Luke’s Church in Slidell. Rina is a graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Law School.