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Top officials quietly urge airport compromise

AIRPORT
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
US Airways jets are parked at the terminal at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Tuesday, May 7, 2013. TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com/ Aboard NBC Charlotte's AirStar

RALEIGH Months of acrimonious debate over Charlotte’s airport may be headed to a cooling-off period, thanks in part to quiet interventions by the governor, a top lawmaker and a prominent Charlotte businessman.

Two Mecklenburg County lawmakers Wednesday unveiled a proposal that would create a commission to study the future of Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

One called the proposal “a work in progress,” and passage is far from assured.

But it would replace a bill to transfer airport control from the city to an independent authority, an effort that ignited a furious response from city officials and even threats of lawsuits.

Against that backdrop, sources say Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis joined others in stepping up behind-the-scenes efforts to bring the sides closer.

“Speaker Tillis and the governor have both been instrumental in making sure the bill is done the proper way, the ‘Charlotte way,’ the way things are normally done in Charlotte,” former state Rep. Ed McMahan of Charlotte, an informal McCrory adviser, said Wednesday.

Whether that will satisfy city officials is unclear. Warren Cooksey, one of the City Council’s two Republicans, said he was still reviewing the proposal. Others could not be reached.

Also trying to bring the sides together is Ned Curran, a Charlotte businessman and chairman of the state transportation board. He’s talked with the governor and the speaker and last week convened a meeting between two City Council members and Charlotte GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a co-sponsor of the airport authority bill.

“I don’t think I’m alone in trying to encourage my city and my legislature to try to find common ground,” said Curran, president and CEO of Bissell Companies.

“The fact that people are signaling a willingness to get in a room and talk is a major step forward.”

Earlier this month, that seemed unlikely.

Rep. Bill Brawley, a Matthews Republican and a main sponsor of the authority bill, had declared talks with the city at an impasse. Negotiations, he said, “have pretty much stopped.”

But on Wednesday, Brawley and Samuelson unveiled their proposal to create a commission that would study the issue and report back to lawmakers next spring.

They proposed a 12-member commission that would “recommend to the General Assembly legislation to ensure the long term success of the (airport).”

Commission members would be appointed by leaders of the House and Senate as well as the City Council.

The draft said the commission must consider the option of creating an authority and study the details of a transition from the current management.

But the bill also says the commission “retains the option of also studying and recommending alternatives to the creation of an Authority.”

“To even propose a study we are going the extra mile,” Samuelson said Wednesday. “Because the reality is, we would still prefer an authority. But we want to make sure we do it right.”

Samuelson said she would expect both sides to negotiate in good faith, implicitly agreeing to accept any recommendations by the commission.

In April, when a city-funded study concluded that even though the airport has been “spectacularly successful,” it should be run by an authority, many council members reacted angrily.

“I don’t want them treating us like they treated their own consultant,” Samuelson said. “It is a two-way street. We have to accept the results of the study as much as we want the city to accept the results.”

Behind the scenes

Curran said he got involved about a month ago out of concern for the airport’s future. He’s used that concern to reach out to both sides.

“Everybody feels the same, that ensuring the airport is a low-cost provider while providing excellent service is a shared vision,” he said. “When you start with that, you have excellent ground to work with.”

Curran has ties to top officials.

A McCrory backer, he was appointed to the transportation board by the governor. He’s also a Tillis supporter who planned to attend Wednesday’s Myers Park Country Club fundraiser for Tillis’ U.S. Senate campaign.

“The governor has been encouraging to all sides to find a resolution,” he said. “The speaker, just like the governor, would like to find a resolution emerge that all sides can embrace.”

Tillis’ candidacy could also work in favor of an airport compromise, said former City Council member Stan Campbell, an authority supporter.

“I think that has had a lot to do with it,” Campbell said. “Thom wants to bend over backwards for people to think he’s being fair. And that’s probably a good thing if you’re running for the Senate.”

Campbell also said he gives new City Manager Ron Carlee credit. Carlee has reached out to lawmakers even while advocating continued city control.

“He had sort of a charm offensive,” said Campbell. “And he worked that very well … When was the last time you saw one of the council members say something stupid?”

A former chair of the city’s Airport Advisory Committee, Campbell said he believes a commission will end up recommending an authority.

“I know city folks were happy” with the proposed delay, he said. “But popping champagne corks may be a little premature.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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