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Charlotte City Council to grill airport board over power struggle

Charlotte City Council members are accusing some of airport director Jerry Orr’s most loyal supporters of betraying the city.

Now, in a rare move, the council has summoned the Airport Advisory Committee’s 11 members to a hearing on Monday.

They plan to question the committee about which members are “going behind (their) backs” to promote a regional airport authority to oversee Charlotte Douglas International Airport instead of the city, and why.

Several council members are incensed that advisory committee chairman Shawn Dorsch has emailed a state legislator and contacted at least two leaders in neighboring counties to advocate for an authority.

Council members want to know whether other committee members also are pushing for an independent authority. The plan is fiercely opposed by city officials but has strong support from state legislators and elected officials in surrounding counties.

Committee members are appointed to advise the City Council on aviation matters and airport business and rarely, if ever, go against Orr’s proposals. Since 2007, the committee has voted unanimously to recommend all of Orr’s plans, a total of 390 votes, according to an Observer review of committee records.

Orr, aviation director since 1989, has previously voiced support for an authority. The city has overseen the airport since the mid-1930s, when Charlotte Municipal Airport opened.

“We have a $10 billion asset that the city of Charlotte has run effectively,” said council member Michael Barnes. “There is no reason to create an authority that would include people from throughout the region and be appointed in Raleigh. That level of red tape and bureaucracy won’t do the airport any good.”

Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon said that in his 16 years on council, no other city committee has been called to answer questions.

Cannon worked with Dorsch on a high-profile Carolinas Aviation Museum project and was shocked when he heard the reports.

“He never struck me to be a person that would go behind our backs. He’s always been so forthcoming, so transparent,” Cannon said of Dorsch. “For something like this to occur has me wondering: ‘Who is this person?’ ”

Yet others say committee members should be free to express their opinions.

Stan Campbell, a former council member and outspoken airport authority supporter, said Dorsch and the committee have every right to lobby for an airport authority.

He’s befuddled why the City Council would call on the committee to explain itself.

“Are they going to tar and feather them, or run them out of town on a rail?” asked Campbell, who once chaired the airport committee. “You’re inviting them to the Spanish Inquisition. ... I think it’s childish and silly and petulant.”

Campbell said the city is setting a dangerous precedent.

“If it’s going to be required now to toe the city line if you’re on a committee, they should just say so,” he said.

Critical time

Monday’s showdown is the latest and perhaps biggest confrontation in a saga that began in January when rumors emerged of an airport authority taking control of Charlotte Douglas from the city.

In February, state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican, introduced a bill to create the authority. The bill has passed the Senate.

The showdown, which could be the city’s last angry gasp on the matter, comes at a critical time.

A city-funded study on the proposed legislation is a week from completion and the state House is expected to vote soon after.

US Airways and American Airlines are set to merge by this fall, with Charlotte becoming the second-biggest hub in the combined company that will bear the American name. And with Orr, 72, hinting that he might retire in the coming year, whoever is in charge of the airport will be in charge of selecting his replacement.

Council members say the city has done an effective job of overseeing an airport that is the country’s eighth-largest in terms of passenger traffic, with the lowest per-passenger costs among all major airports.

Council member Andy Dulin said Monday’s meeting is appropriate – if just to question Dorsch why he is lobbying for something the council is clearly against.

“He’s an appointed representative of the city of Charlotte,” said Dulin, who publicly has called Dorsch a “chump” and a “numb nuts.” “If he or any of the other committee members want an authority, then great. But not while they’re representing the city on this committee.”

Dorsch is also a member of the city’s airport governance commission, which oversees a $150,000 study examining the question of who should run the airport.

In three interviews, he declined to respond to questions for the record about Monday’s meeting and what some council members are saying about him.

In a statement, Dorsch said the City Council created the advisory committee to “provide it with expert and technical advice on aviation and land usage, among other things. So the advisory committee looks forward to answering the council’s questions on Monday.”

Supporters of the bill have said the legislature needs to create a new, independent authority because the City Council is meddling with how the airport is run.

They say the city risks driving up airport costs through steps that include putting Charlotte-Mecklenburg police in charge of police at the airport and adding more officers. And higher costs, they maintain, would put Charlotte’s US Airways hub status at risk. .

Supporters also argue that the airport is a regional asset and an authority would give bordering counties a voice.

The regional authority would be governed by a 13-member board.

The N.C. House speaker, Senate president pro tem and governor would each get one appointment, as would commissioners in Lincoln, Iredell, Gaston, Cabarrus and Union counties. Charlotte, the mayor and Mecklenburg County would appoint the remaining members.

Prominent board

The committee is one of three dozen city-appointed boards that advise the City Council on everything from bicycle transportation issues to zoning to taxi cabs.

The airport committee is appointed by the council, the mayor and Charlotte Regional Partnership. Members meet monthly and take nonbinding advisory votes on the airport’s plans.

It is one of the most prominent because the airport is widely viewed by business and political leaders as Charlotte’s most important economic asset.

Committee members approve all Orr’s proposals, typically with little debate. At meetings in January and February, the committee sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” to Orr after he was named the Charlotte Business Journal’s 2012 “Business Person of the Year.”

Committee Vice Chairman Drew Riolo, a Charlotte aviation lawyer and a pilot, denied that the group rubber-stamps all of Orr’s plans. He said the group supports them because they’re sound.

“The subjects that he puts forward for review we generally agree on because the precedent set by him is so fantastic,” Riolo said.

Unanswered questions

Dorsch, the chairman, is a private pilot who flies extensively on business for a company he co-founded in Charlotte and now co-owns. He was first appointed to the committee in 2008 by then-Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and reappointed by Mayor Anthony Foxx.

He is best known in Charlotte for spearheading the 2011 project to bring US Airways Flight 1549 to the Carolinas Aviation Museum, where Dorsch is the volunteer president. In January 2009, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” took off for Charlotte from LaGuardia Airport in New York. Minutes later its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, splash-landed the Airbus A320 on the Hudson River after the plane collided with geese. All 155 people on board survived.

It is now a permanent exhibit at the museum.

Cannon, the mayor pro tem, said he worked with Dorsch to bring the plane to Charlotte.

“We worked for months together on this, almost day to day,” Cannon said. “What’s important to me is to figure out how he was communicating and in what capacity.

“As a council, we need to know why he did it, and what was the gain from it. ... He should have at least had the courtesy to sit down with the mayor – the person who reappointed him – and let him know that he was about to do this.”

Because of the controversy, the Council-Manager Relations Committee, led by Foxx, will re-examine the roles, responsibilities and expectations of council-appointed committees, Cannon said.

“We want to know we have allies on our side,” he said.

Dulin said he thinks Dorsch and the committee might be too loyal to the aviation director.

“There is probably some loyalty to Jerry,” Dulin said. “It’s just improper for him to be advocating against the city’s best interest. It’s just not super bright.”

Lobbying counties

Officials from two surrounding counties said Dorsch contacted them to promote the regional authority.

Both said he allayed their concerns that an authority would take over their local airports. They said Dorsch identified himself as chairman of the advisory board.

“He reached out to me,” said Alex Patton, chairman of the Lincoln County Commission.

Patton told Dorsch of his concern that his county’s airport would be swallowed up by a regional authority. He said Dorsch then sent him information that clarified language in the bill that is now in the state House.

Patton said Dorsch also helped him work with state legislators.

“I talked to my General Assembly folks, and he talked to some of his and got that language straightened out,” he said.

Steve Johnson, the Iredell County Commission chairman, said Dorsch called twice pushing for an authority.

Johnson said Dorsch wanted his board to pass a resolution of support and asked whether he’d appoint a representative from Iredell to one.

“He said they were concerned about the future of the airport … that there’d be additional fees or taxes at the airport,” Johnson said. “They wanted to maintain a pricing advantage.”

He said he told Dorsch that he was concerned about the impact an authority would have on the Statesville airport. In six to eight emails, Johnson said, Dorsch supplied information that assured him the local airport would remain free from regional oversight.

“I had reservations at first because I didn’t want to get mixed up in Charlotte politics,” Johnson said. “And I’m not a big fan of regional planning. But I came to understand that the Charlotte airport is an asset to the region and do believe it’d be best for an authority to govern the airport.

“Now I’m reading that the folks in Charlotte are saying we’re intruding in their affairs. I never called anybody there. That Dorsch fellow called me.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041
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