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Airport twist: City offers to create independent commission

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

The Charlotte City Council and Mayor Patsy Kinsey have agreed to transfer some control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport to an independent 11-member governing body, but one whose members would be appointed by the city – the latest twist in a months-long standoff between city leaders and lawmakers.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the proposal, sent to the General Assembly Monday afternoon, was a “really dramatic” change for council members. “This is more than halfway,” Carlee said.

Under the proposal, the airport would no longer be run as a city department, as it has for roughly 80 years. It would be partially run by an authority, or a commission.

Airport employees would still work for the city of Charlotte. The Democratic-controlled City Council could still control some of the airport’s finances, but it would likely delegate some decisions – including possibly the awarding of contracts – to the proposed commission.

It’s unclear how the Republican-controlled General Assembly will respond. One legislator was cool to the city’s proposal. State Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican, said in an email to the Observer that the city’s commission would have “no defined powers.”

She added: “We have had the votes for an authority since the Senate sent us their bill in March. Yet, for the past 4 months, we have gone beyond the extra mile to give the city every conceivable opportunity to work with us on a mutually suitable option, even pledging our good faith in writing as recently as Sunday night. They have refused.”

If city and legislative leaders do not reach a deal, House members could vote Tuesday on a bill that would transfer control of the airport from the city to an independent authority.

It could win final Senate approval by mid-week. As a so-called local bill, it would become law without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature.

City leaders have fought the authority bill. Last week, Democratic City Council member Michael Barnes said the legislature was “stealing our airport.” Polls show Charlotte voters overwhelmingly against it.

Supporters say it would give the airport more streamlined management and keep politics out of management decisions.

Council members and Kinsey met for about two hours in closed session Monday night discussing the city’s latest proposal.

“We are still talking,” Kinsey said about the city’s relationship with the General Assembly.

The city of Charlotte currently has an authority to handle tourism, the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. The City Council and mayor appoint its board members, as they would do with the new airport commission.

But it appears the proposed airport commission would be more closely tied to the city – and less independent – than the CRVA is.

Under the city’s plan, two of the 11 airport board members would be from west Charlotte, where the airport is located. Three would be from outside Mecklenburg County and the remaining six would be from Charlotte or the county. The city would appoint all 11.

Now the airport functions as a city department. Aviation Director Jerry Orr reports to the city manager.

Kinsey met with council members over the weekend and Monday, trying to find a compromise to remove what Carlee said is a “cloud of uncertainty over the airport.”

At another point during the city’s impasse with the legislature, Carlee had proposed a governing structure for the airport similar to what city leaders proposed Monday. Council members rejected the idea then.

But with the General Assembly now poised to pass a bill that would take control of the airport away from the city, council members agreed to send Monday’s proposal to Raleigh.

If the city’s proposal is accepted, the new 11-member airport governing board would be free to make decisions on buying equipment, hiring and firing an aviation director and planning future expansions.

The City Council had rejected a legislative proposal to create a study group for the airport, saying it was biased in favor of creating an authority.

In the city plan, the mayor and council members would have power over airport commission appointments. It’s unclear whether the City Council would have any control over airport revenues.

City officials have made less-than-veiled suggestions that they would sue the state should an authority bill pass. Samuelson, one of the main House sponsors of the bill, said that’s what she’d like to avoid.

Early Monday night, Samuelson appeared confident that a compromise could emerge that would put the airport under control of “something short of a full-fledged authority.”

Negotiations between the city and legislators first appeared to fall apart last week. Lawmakers had invited the city to join a 12-member, joint legislative study commission. The House, Senate and city would each have four appointments.

City officials said that was unbalanced. They called an authority a predetermined outcome.

But lawmakers said the composition would be even. They said two of their eight appointees would be Democrats, who would presumably side with the city. That would make the commission split 6-6, with half favoring an authority and half favoring continued city control.

Samuelson said House leaders put that in writing, even giving the city the say over which Democrat would be named from the House.

Morrill: 704 358-5059
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