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Why we passed the airport bill

By Ruth Samuelson et al
Special to the Observer

Reluctance to change and an extreme aversion to relinquishing even a scintilla of power are two hallmarks of any government bureaucracy, regardless of size. So it is understandable that city government officials would reject suggestions that they create an independent regional authority to govern Charlotte Douglas airport – even when those suggestions come from the city’s business community, duly elected state representatives and their very own airport governance consultant.

A growing recognition of the need for those charting the airport’s future to have a truly regional perspective and a business mindset – free as much as possible from the influences of ward politics – convinced us that it was essential to establish an independent regional authority despite city officials’ resistance.

Today, we’re writing to urge Charlotte City Council members to resist the instinct to further obstruct the transition and, as a result, do damage to this vital regional resource.

Under the bill passed this week, the state legislature has not seized the airport from the city and will have no say in its governance going forward. The authority board will be made up entirely of appointees of Charlotte metro area governments.

Four of the 11 members will be picked by Charlotte’s mayor and City Council – with at least two of those four coming from the city’s west side. Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Iredell, Gaston, Lincoln and Union county governments would have one appointee each. The 11th member would be elected by the members of the authority. Each of these representatives would bring airport-relevant experience.

We envision these representatives leading us toward a truly regional airport system with a business orientation that will serve all of our citizens’ transportation needs, and at the lowest costs possible, without interference by local elected officials.

While we would have preferred to come up with a governance structure in partnership with City Council members, it became apparent over the last four months that city officials were not willing to collaborate.

We’re confident the bill we have passed is fair, addressing concerns expressed by many that Charlotte would not be adequately compensated for any investments it has made in the airport. Most airport improvements made over the years have been paid for directly with airport revenue – and not city taxpayer money. But in cases where it is shown otherwise, the authority will reimburse the city for those expenses.

It is well documented that Charlotte Douglas airport has played an essential role in attracting top-tier companies that have created some of our highest-paying jobs. It has also helped make it possible for many homegrown businesses to flourish on an international level.

So why do so many of Charlotte’s business leaders believe that change is needed, and why do we agree? Because they understand that the airport is not like regular city departments. It really is a business. And smart business people don’t wait until the system is broken before they fix it. They look ahead and prepare to avoid dangers and capture opportunities.

Government, on the other hand, is more likely to wait until a system is broken before they fix it, if even then! And it takes time – time that the Charlotte hub doesn’t have.

A smart business person would recognize that when her biggest customer (in this case, US Airways) is undergoing a major reorganization impacting every factor of their business – including hub locations – she needs to be positioned to capture that opportunity. A successful CEO would also recognize that if his world-class COO is retiring after many years running the “ship,” he needs every tool at his disposal to hire and train the best replacement possible.

The system that got us where we are may not be the best system to keep us there.

The city’s consultant said that to maintain our hub status, we needed to run the airport like a business. And, he said, an authority is most likely to provide that perspective.

The N.C. constitution gives state government not just the power but the responsibility to see that local governments operate in the best interests of citizens. It is in that spirit that we passed the airport governance bill this week.

This piece was submitted by Rep. Ruth Samuelson, Sen. Bob Rucho, Rep. Bill Brawley, Sen. Jeff Tarte, Rep. Jacqueline Schaffer, Rep. Charles Jeter and Rep. Rob Bryan.
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