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Orr breaks silence on Charlotte airport authority, saying he supports it

For months, as controversy raged around how to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the city’s longtime aviation director remained silent about whether the city or a new, independent airport authority should be in charge.

But Monday, Jerry Orr said he thinks the airport should be run by an authority.

His comments caused at least one public official to call for Orr’s firing.

“This airport ought to be an airport authority,” Orr, 72, said. He told reporters that’s the same view he’s had for 38 years, since he started working at the airport.

His comments Monday weren’t exactly a surprise: In interviews before February, Orr had said a dedicated airport authority would be able to run the airport more effectively. But in February, Orr was told by his boss, then-interim city manager Julie Burch, not to lobby for an authority, which the city opposes.

The timing of Monday’s comments could indicate that the authority push has more momentum than ever.

When asked why he chose to speak out now, Orr said: “I’m tired of other people defining me.”

Orr’s comments drew the ire of state Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Democrat representing Mecklenburg County. He has been one of the most vocal opponents of the airport authority bill in the state legislature.

“He is clearly insubordinate, and I think he should be fired,” Graham said. “He is not a policymaker. He should be terminated.”

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee told the Observer he couldn’t comment on what Orr said because the remarks constitute a “personnel matter.”

“It would not be appropriate for me to comment at this time,” Carlee said via email.

A bill to create the new regional airport authority has passed the state Senate and is currently awaiting final approval by the N.C. House. That vote could come in late May.

Orr has been aviation director since 1989. His remarks Monday came just days after a $150,000 study paid for by the city concluded that the airport would be best run by an authority. The city study recommended that the proposed authority be changed to include more representation for Charlotte on the board of directors, and less for the surrounding counties.

Shawn Dorsch, the former chairman of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee, said Orr’s support and the consultant’s report lend more credence to those backing an authority.

“These are expert voices joining a growing consensus over the past week,” he said.

Mayor Anthony Foxx removed Dorsch from the advisory committee last week for working to support an authority against the city’s wishes.

Talk of retirement

Also Monday, Orr shed a bit of light on recent reports that city officials, including Foxx and former City Manager Curt Walton, had pressured him to retire last year. Orr is a city employee, with a salary of just over $211,000.

Orr said city officials, whom he did not name, communicated over a series of conversations last year that he should retire. He said he wasn’t told directly.

“It was complicated,” Orr said, without elaborating.

Foxx, a Democrat who on Monday was nominated to be President Barack Obama’s secretary of transportation, has denied that he pushed Orr to retire.

The aviation director’s eventual retirement has been the subject of much speculation, and Orr has suggested he might leave in the coming year. When asked Monday how long he plans to stay at his job, Orr quipped: “Through the end of the week.”

Orr said he doesn’t know who initiated the legislative effort for an airport authority.

“I actually don’t know who drafted it,” Orr said.

He said he has talked with authority supporter Stan Campbell, a former City Council member and former chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee, “but not about drafting an airport authority bill.”

Campbell has told the Observer he received a draft of the bill from an executive at US Airways, the airport’s biggest tenant, last year. He said he didn’t know who wrote the legislation that was attached. The airline has said it met with authority supporters last year and forwarded a bill from one businessperson to another “as a courtesy” but said it did not draft the bill.

Orr said he agrees with the city’s consultant that there’s room to change the legislation. “I think there’s probably some things in the current legislation that need to be fixed,” Orr said, but he didn’t specify what those are. He added that he wants what he thinks is best for the airport.

“I’ve put my life into this airport, and I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to it,” Orr said.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: An online version of this story had an erroneous headline early Tuesday. The headline incorrectly described Jerry Orr’s title. He is the airport director. The headline was corrected at 8:50 a.m.)

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortillo
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