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Airport committee chairman stonewalls Charlotte City Council over regional authority

They scolded him, admonished him and even threatened to remove him as chairman of Charlotte’s Airport Advisory Committee.

But Shawn Dorsch didn’t budge Monday. He repeatedly stonewalled Charlotte City Council members on who is behind the push to shift control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to a regional authority during a tense and often angry meeting.

In the end, Dorsch’s refusal to answer questions could cost him his chairmanship.

Dorsch and the other 10 members of the committee had been summoned by the City Council to answer questions why he apparently has lobbied a legislator and officials in neighboring counties to transfer the airport’s oversight from the city to a regional authority.

After 90 minutes of questioning, the eight other committee members who attended the meeting were asked to stand if they thought Dorsch should resign.

Five, including the vice chair, stood. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx said he would consider firing Dorsch. The committee was created to advise the City Council on airport matters.

The meeting left exasperated City Council members shaking their heads and pounding the table with their fists.

“You are one slick fellow,” council member Andy Dulin told Dorsch. “I don’t trust you.”

Council member Patsy Kinsey told Dorsch he needed to answer their questions directly.

“I really don’t appreciate you dancing around our questions,” she said. “You have way overstepped your bounds.”

Monday’s questioning follows nearly four months of controversy, since rumors of an airport authority bill first began circulating in January. Since then, the bill has gone from rumor to a full-fledged plan, and an airport authority bill sponsored by Republicans Rep. Bill Brawley and Sen. Bob Rucho, both of Matthews, has passed the N.C. Senate. It awaits a vote in the House.

Foxx said that regardless of what happens with the airport authority – which he and other council members acknowledged will be almost impossible to stop – the fight has damaged regional cooperation. Two neighboring county commission chairmen have said Dorsch contacted them to solicit their support for a regional authority, on which they would have seats.

“This is spilling over into things that no one in his right mind would want to escalate,” Foxx said, adding the issue could disrupt the balance that has made regional cooperation possible. He said the regional authority push could damage future regional road projects – which Charlotte may no longer support.

Council member Michael Barnes tried get Dorsch to tell the council who in Charlotte was pushing the idea of an authority.

Again Dorsch stonewalled.

“We’re asking you to help us,” Barnes said.

“I want to help you, I want to help the city,” Dorsch said. “I will absolutely help you in any way I can. But I think it is improper for me to speak for other people.”

Barnes pressed Dorsch for several minutes, to no avail.

“These boosters have names, these businessmen,” Barnes said. “We’ve heard (Charlotte developer) Johnny Harris’ name mentioned. We’ve heard a few people’s names mentioned. How do we do our jobs as elected officials if the airport advisory (committee) that we’ve appointed won’t help us?”

“Sir, it is not my job to out people. It is not my job to call out names publicly,” Dorsch said. “Each citizen is entitled to their privacy.”

Barnes said time is not on the city’s side – the authority bill is gaining momentum, and could be law within weeks.

“It’s rolling downhill, and the turd is getting bigger and bigger, collecting grass and dirt,” Barnes said of the bill.

Foxx repeatedly called for stopping the bill so the city, legislators and leaders in the region would have time to discuss the issue.

Legislation looming

The airport authority bill has passed the state Senate, and is awaiting a vote in the N.C. House. It is fiercely opposed by Charlotte City Council, but an authority has support in the state legislature and the five counties bordering Mecklenburg.

The bill would transfer ownership and control of Charlotte Douglas from the city to a new, regional airport authority, overseen by a 13-member board. The board would include appointments by Charlotte City Council, the mayor and Mecklenburg County, as well as Gaston, Lincoln, Union, Cabarrus and Iredell counties, the state legislature and the governor.

Dorsch is also a city-appointed member of the committee overseeing Charlotte’s $150,000 airport governance study. City Council commissioned the study to look into how the airport is run in response to the push to create an authority, and Dorsch said he couldn’t speak in an official capacity until the study is done.

Council member Claire Fallon, stern and often pounding the table to make her point, asked: “Why would you go to outside counties to talk to other people? And don’t tell me, ‘I’m here in an official capacity.’ ”

Dorsch began to repeat a previous response, but Fallon stopped him, livid. “It’s a very simple question, Mr. Dorsch. Why did you go to outside counties?”

“From time to time, all of us receive calls from people,” Dorsch finally said. “We’re all free to express our personal opinions in a personal setting.”

Later, he continued that thought: “I am happy to give anybody advice who contacts me. I don’t think anybody should be prevented from expressing their thoughts.”

Dorsch said the committee voted to talk about the concept of an authority in February, but was told by then-interim City Manager Julie Burch not to hold the meeting. Monday, he told the council that the advisory committee should be allowed to hold that meeting, and then it could better advise council members.

“At that time we can discuss it and collect more information,” Dorsch said. “But privately, until then, I am certainly happy to do what I can to help the city. In an official capacity, I don’t think it is possible to do that and not affect the outcome of this study.”

Council member LaWana Mayfield scolded Dorsch for turning the airport into a political issue.

She asked Dorsch if he’d considered resigning from the advisory committee.

“I have not done anything that requires that or warrants that,” Dorsch said. “Any conversations I’ve had with anyone has been in a personal capacity.”

Foxx said that he believed Dorsch had known there was a possibility for legislation to wrest oversight of Charlotte Douglas from the city since last January. The mayor asked Dorsch why he didn’t discuss that with his committee to see what members thought about it.

Dorsch simply told Foxx “he was new to politics.”

“You seem pretty experienced to me,” Foxx snapped.

Tensions

The conflict has exposed tensions between Charlotte aviation director Jerry Orr and the city. Orr, a city employee, has clashed with other city administrators over transferring control of airport police to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Orr has previously expressed support for an airport authority, but was told by city officials not to openly advocate for one after the rumors started. Since then, he’s been silent publicly about the issue.

Orr declined to comment. When asked after the hearing what he thought of Dorsch and whether he should remain chairman, Orr said only, “I don’t think.”

Airport Advisory Committee Vice Chairman Drew Riolo supported calling for Dorsch’s resignation, and said it was important for the committee to move forward cohesively.

“We want what’s best going for the airport,” Dorsch said.

After the meeting, Dorsch left quickly through a side door. He was followed by about a dozen reporters and television cameramen, but wouldn’t answer questions.

The crush of reporters was too much for an elevator in the government center to handle, and the doors wouldn’t close. Dorsch took the stairs.

To shouted questions about whether he had used his official position to build support for the authority, Dorsch said he had only shared his opinions as a private citizen.

“People share their opinions every day,” Dorsch said. All citizens have freedom of speech, he emphasized. “That’s part of what makes this country great.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortilo
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