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Emotions high over airport authority push

RALEIGH A blog, a text and a chance encounter.

They all led to an unusual effort by the speaker of the N.C. House to defuse the growing tension between Charlotte and surrounding counties – and between the city and some Republican lawmakers.

The tension stems from the counties’ support for a proposed authority to oversee Charlotte Douglas International Airport. A bill to shift control from the city has passed the state Senate and awaits action in the House.

Charlotte officials have accused the counties of “betrayal.” “It makes you not want to get involved in regional efforts at all,” Democratic council member David Howard said this month.

Monday, at Howard’s urging, the council voted unanimously to withdraw support for a resolution in support of the proposed Monroe Connector-Bypass, a project long sought by Union County. The city was expected to push the issue at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Agency, a group known as MUMPO.

The council’s vote was reported in “The Naked City,” a blog by Mary Newsom, a former Observer editor who is now associate director of urban and regional affairs at UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute.

On Wednesday morning, the blog caught the attention of GOP Rep. Bill Brawley, a sponsor of the authority bill. His Matthews home lies near one end of the proposed bypass.

So he called Dana Fenton, the city’s lobbyist.

“I asked him if Charlotte really wanted to declare war on the General Assembly,” Brawley recalled. “I thought it was an attack on me personally. … Charlotte was acting like a child saying, ‘I’m going to take my ball and go home’.”

Relations threatened

That afternoon, Rep. Charles Jeter also read the blog. He’s a Huntersville Republican whose district includes the airport. He texted Fenton at around 5:30 p.m. MUMPO was scheduled to meet at 7.

“Dana – please don’t kill Monroe Bypass at MUMPO tonight,” he wrote. “It will tremendously hurt efforts. Need to talk ASAP.”

At the time, Fenton was with Howard and councilman James Mitchell at a meeting of the Legislative Black Caucus, where the two council members were trying to enlist support on the airport bill.

“I’m in a meeting,” Fenton texted Jeter. “Do I need to step out or can I wait?”

“Step out,” Jeter replied.

He told Fenton that withdrawing support for the bypass resolution would not only hurt the city’s regional relations but jeopardize its support in the legislature.

“It would have reverberated in this building,” Jeter said later. “That was not going to do anything but draw an unnecessary line in the sand, and it was not going to help the process.”

Around the same time, a member of the black caucus urged Howard and Mitchell to see Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican. So they went to the speaker’s corner office on the second floor. The MUMPO meeting was scheduled to start in less than an hour.

Tillis’s message, Howard would say, “was not to do anything that would further complicate a situation already complicated.”

Tillis said the House won’t act on the authority bill until a city-hired consultant finishes his review of airport governance. The report is due May 1.

“What we need to do,” Tillis said later, “is just have some patience and let the process work.”

‘Minimize emotion’

Shortly before the MUMPO meeting was scheduled to start in Charlotte, Tillis and the council members got on the phone with Mayor Anthony Foxx. They asked him to instruct the city’s MUMPO representative not to resurrect the Monroe Bypass resolution.

Reviving it would not have gone down well with Charlotte’s neighbors.

“It would be detrimental for any part of the region to say we don’t support” the bypass, said Frank Aikmus, a Union County commissioner.

Ten minutes before 7, council member Michael Barnes was walking into the MUMPO meeting when his phone rang. A city staffer was on the line, telling him to leave the bypass resolution alone.

But Barnes had already made a decision. He wasn’t going to raise the issue anyway.

“I was not comfortable … stoking the fires of tension in the region,” he said. “What I think is in the best interest of the region is to find ways to minimize the emotion, not to intensify it.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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