RALEIGH A bill to create a Charlotte airport authority took another step toward passage Tuesday after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise with city officials – with both sides accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith.
The measure passed the House Transportation Committee with only slight changes from an earlier, Senate-passed version. It now heads to the Finance Committee and, if passed, to the House floor, probably this month.
The bill would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent authority. It was introduced by two Matthews Republicans, Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, who say the airport is a regional asset that needs to be protected from city interference.
For both sides, the issue appears to be whether an authority is the starting point for any negotiations or itself still a subject for negotiation.
In a conference call last week, lawmakers say they invited the city to join a legislative study commission to review details of transferring the airport to an authority. Representatives of the city proposed a local “blue-ribbon” committee to study the whole issue, including whether to even create an authority.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, told the House Transportation Committee the city was “totally unwilling to work with us.”
“It came across as a stall as opposed to a genuine desire to really evaluate the prospects,” she said later.
City Council member David Howard, who participated in the conference call, called it a “set-up.”
“You can’t negotiate with somebody who has a gun to your head,” he told the Observer.
If the bill goes forward, he said, the city will examine its options “including legal options.”
City Manager Ron Carlee said he doesn’t think the two sides are “that far apart.”
“We believe all options should be on the table with respect to governance structures, including an authority,” he said.
Lawmakers, he added, appear to believe “the only thing that can be studied is an authority with no other options.”
Minor changes made
The Senate passed the authority bill in February, barely a month into the session. It would have created a 13-member authority, with just two members appointed by the city of Charlotte.
Last month House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius Republican, told a Charlotte Chamber group not to “put much stock in” parts of the Senate bill. While a new authority is likely, he said, he pledged to work on “a bill that makes sense.”
But Tuesday’s version makes only minor changes in the Senate bill.
Instead of a 13-member authority, it would create one with 11 members. Gone are appointments by the governor and one at-large member. The bill still would require only two members from the city of Charlotte, though the city council would nominate another county resident who would be appointed by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Senate president pro tem.
Tuesday, authority supporters alluded to a recent study by a city-hired consultant. While acknowledging that the airport has prospered under city control, it concluded that an authority would be the best long-term governance model.
Critics suggested the study was more complicated.
“It did not say ‘overnight,’ ” said Charlotte Democratic Rep. Becky Carney. “There are some huge … issues. What are the unintended consequences?”
She and other critics tried unsuccessfully to slow down the bill, which Democratic Rep. Rodney Moore of Charlotte said would “cut the guts out of the city of Charlotte.”
Even a Republican expressed some reservations. Rep. Charles Jeter, a Huntersville Republican whose district includes the airport, observed that under the bill, only five of the 11 members would be from Mecklenburg. “That concerns me,” he said.
Carney, whose husband Gene is a retired airport official, asked what provisions the bill made for current employees and their benefits. Staff attorney Gerry Cohen said benefits, including retirement, would transfer to an authority.
Where any negotiations go from here is unclear.
“Right now we’re at an impasse,” Rep. Brawley told the committee.
Carlee, who briefly spoke to the panel, said a blue-ribbon committee including business leaders could sort out the best governance approach, which might come down to an authority.
“What the city is prepared to do is talk (about) all the issues that were in the consultant’s report…,” he said. “Let the business case drive the right governance structure.”
Later, Carlee said he wants to keep the door open to talks.
“I would hope that if the city doesn’t shut the door on conversations, nobody in the General Assembly shuts the door,” he said.
Brawley said later the door to compromise is still open, as long as the city accepts the idea of an authority.
“We’re still talking,” he said after the meeting. “I’ll take their call. The authority’s been decided. Do they want to be at the table to design it? That’s still out there.”
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