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Lawmakers raise concerns about city’s management of airport

They say business leaders worry city won’t manage it ‘wisely’ in the future

By Jim Morrill, Steve Harrison and Ely Portillo
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com

RALEIGH Concern that the city of Charlotte will no longer manage Charlotte Douglas International Airport “wisely” is one factor behind the move to transfer control to a regional authority, one lawmaker said Wednesday.

Rep. Bill Brawley, who plans to spearhead the effort with Sen. Bob Rucho, a fellow Matthews Republican, said the effort comes in response to concerns of “senior business leaders.”

“Charlotte has done a good job of managing an economic engine that drives prosperity for the (region),” Brawley said. “But many business leaders are concerned that Charlotte is about to stop managing the airport wisely, which would harm the whole region.”

Such concerns appear to reflect those of Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who has suggested he would welcome an airport authority. Relations between Orr and city staff have been strained.

Some City Council members have told the Observer they’re upset at how Orr has handled questions about the airport’s future. They believe he’s pushing for creation of an authority and consider his actions “insubordination.”

“There are a lot of angry feelings on the city council about this,” Mayor Anthony Foxx said Wednesday.

Foxx said there’s no need for change in airport management.

“I feel we have been good stewards,” he said Wednesday. “We have opened a new parallel runway, there is a new intermodal facility under way. We are working hard to get a new control tower in a good spot. If it isn’t broken, why try and fix it?”

But lawmakers appear ready to try. A bill to create the authority is expected to be introduced soon.

The airport, with its $405 million annual budget, is a city department set up as a financially separate enterprise. Money from the fees and grants it collects has to be used on the airport, which takes no local tax dollars. Most large projects are paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds issued by the airport and paid back from airport operations.

The aviation director reports to the city manager, who reports to the City Council.

Charlotte Douglas would join a growing list of North Carolina airports under control of an independent authority. Raleigh-Durham’s airport has long been run by an authority. The Asheville airport is transitioning to an authority under legislation passed last session.

Control issues

One supporter of change is Ed McMahan, a former Republican legislator and member of the Airport Advisory Committee.

He said he and others have grown increasingly wary of what they see as efforts by the city to exercise more control over the airport. They were disturbed by last year’s decision to transfer control of airport security from airport director Jerry Orr to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

“It was really being done, we thought, to capture money from the airport,” he said Wednesday. “It was obvious to us before (former City Manager) Curt Walton resigned that (city management) was becoming more and more involved.”

McMahan said he also believes the airport would be served better with an oversight committee “that could dedicate all their time to managing the airport.”

Even Orr, who has said he’s not lobbying for an airport authority, has said in interviews that he believes an authority would benefit the airport.

“They have a lot of things on their plate,” Orr has said of the City Council. “They simply can’t focus for any length of time on the airport. This is a business, and it needs to be governed like a business.”

Neither McMahan nor Brawley would identify other business leaders who have expressed concern.

But developer Johnny Harris, a former member of the airport advisory board, said he supports the “de-politicking” of the airport.

“I just want to make sure we do what’s right for the airport,” Harris said. “And if this (authority) is the way to do it, this is the way to do it…

“All of a sudden, we have elected officials who don’t have a capital improvement plan, that’s being held hostage to decisions about a streetcar.”

The City Council failed to adopt a capital plan last year because some members did not support the mayor’s push for a streetcar.

Regional authority?

One of the airport’s deputy directors recently visited the Asheville airport on a fact-finding mission. The airport there had been under the control of the city of Asheville.

In an email to the Observer on Wednesday, interim City Manager Julie Burch said she has warned Orr not to press for a change in management.

“I have reinforced with the Airport Director that there has been no policy direction on this matter by the City Council or by me,” she wrote. “I have firmly stated to him that it is not appropriate for staff to be involved in advocating a policy position without proper authorization.”

Lawmakers appear to be looking to the time that the 71-year-old Orr retires.

An authority, Rucho said, would help ensure that “people that are competent and prepared to focus their all attention on this, and choosing the next leadership for the airport, will be in place with that one goal, of making sure that the Charlotte Douglas International Airport will serve the entire needs of the region and the state of North Carolina.”

Making sure the airport serves the region could be a benefit of an authority, he said. The current 11-member airport board has two members from the Charlotte Regional Partnership.

“We believe that it would be better for a group of dedicated authority people – business people, elected officials (and) the like – from the entire region to help provide direction for the long term success of the regional airport,” Rucho said.

Shawn Dorsch, president of the Carolinas Aviation Museum and the airport board’s chairman, said that while it’s not his place to recommend the airport’s management structure, the airport needs a board that can give it undivided attention.

“I think that the size and scale and scope of the entity is such that it warrants dedicated attention,” Dorsch said. “The airport is a business. It’s a very large business. The ability to act quickly matters in business. The airport needs to be able to operate in a nimble manner.”

Board member Andrew Riolo, an aviation lawyer and pilot, said he was “kind of surprised” to hear about the discussion. Riolo and Dorsch said the advisory committee has not discussed the question of whether the airport should be an authority.

“We serve at the pleasure of the mayor and the City Council,” Riolo said. “I don’t think that we would be involved in that discussion at all.”

Power of authorities

Two government-created authorities in Charlotte have wide power. The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, created in 2004, markets the city and manages city-owned buildings such as the Charlotte Convention Center. The City Council and mayor appoint CRVA board members.

For most of the CRVA’s history, the city has taken a hands-off approach, allowing tourism officials to operate freely. But in 2011, after questions about oversight at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and management practices, Foxx and some council members withheld CRVA funding until the board demoted then-chief executive Tim Newman.

Carolinas HealthCare System is a hospital authority, which is a public, tax-exempt agency created by state law in 1943.

As the county’s largest employer, it oversees more than 30 hospitals with $7.5 billion in revenue.

An Observer investigation last year found that the public organization often behaves as if it were a private one.

The system is run by a self-chosen board, gets substantial tax breaks, and exerts its influence through powerful lobbyists and a political action committee that contributes to candidates.

Staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed to this story.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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