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Airport bill passes, but judge halts authority switch

By Jim Morrill, Rick Rothacker and Steve Harrison
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com rrothacker@charlotteobserver.com

RALEIGH The turbulent fight over Charlotte’s airport boomeranged between the General Assembly in Raleigh and a courtroom in Charlotte on Thursday, and by the end of the day had claimed the job of long-time Aviation Director Jerry Orr.

The dispute over whether control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport should be shifted from the city to a new authority landed in court after the N.C. Senate gave quick and final approval to a bill creating the new controlling body.

Shortly after the vote, a judge granted a restraining order on behalf of the city that halted the changeover and raised the prospect of a lengthy legal battle.

In a capstone to the drama, Orr’s tenure with the city ended that evening with a dispute over whether he was fired or resigned.

Thursday’s twists were the latest in a political battle that flared in February when Republican lawmakers caught city officials off guard by introducing legislation to shift the airport to an independent, regional authority.

Proponents of the bill argued that a Democratically controlled city was interfering in the affairs of an airport successfully run by Orr, the longtime aviation director. The city countered that the airport had performed well under city control for nearly eight decades.

The airport battle comes at a sensitive time for the world’s sixth-busiest airport by takeoffs and landings because its primary carrier, US Airways, is in the middle of a merger with American Airlines.

Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor, said that after the news of Orr’s departure, he talked with Doug Parker, the chairman and CEO of US Airways, to reassure him that the city and the state will ensure the airport “works as it should.”

“Mr. Parker and I had a very good conversation,” McCrory said Thursday evening.

After an attempt by McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis and others to reach a last-minute compromise Thursday failed, the N.C. Senate voted for the authority 26-14 along party lines.

Frantic court hearing

After a six-month fight, the final Senate action took less than 60 seconds. It meant that Charlotte Douglas International Airport would move under control of an authority after more than 70 years in city hands.

But minutes after the vote around 2:30 p.m. in Raleigh, Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann appeared before a Superior Court judge in Charlotte seeking a temporary restraining order to immediately halt the change.

The new law needed to be blocked before it caused “immediate, irreparable, and even catastrophic injury to Charlotte, the Airport, and the residents and businesses who depend on orderly operation of the Airport,” the city said in its motion.

In its complaint, the city contended the bill was “illegal and unconstitutional” because N.C. bills dealing with airports should not be handled as local acts that do not require the governor’s signature. The city also argued the transfer would be considered a notice of default by airport bondholders and that the shift would amount to the state taking city property without “just compensation.”

Judge Robert Sumner gave the authority and the N.C. Attorney General’s Office time to respond to the complaint.

In a surprising twist, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, an attorney with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, made his way into the courtroom, representing the new authority.

Vinroot argued that the authority should be allowed to go into effect but that any constitutional issues could be debated in an expedited trial in the next 60 to 90 days. But Drew Erteschik, an attorney from Poyner & Spruill working with Hagemann, said the city was “frantically” asking that the order be approved before the bill was officially ratified, which he expected around 4 p.m.

The arguments before the judge touched on the uncertainty around who was in control of the airport, with Hagemann wondering how “an entity that does not yet exist” could hire a lawyer. It also included moments of tension, with Vinroot criticizing some of the language in the city’s proposed restraining order as a “fairy tale.”

After making some changes, Sumner approved the order shortly before 4 p.m., and set a hearing date for July 29.

A bill passed by the legislature needs the signatures of House Speaker Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger before being enacted.

Republican Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, a primary sponsor of the bill, said the bill was enacted at 4:08 p.m.

The timing of Thursday’s events is likely to become fodder for the impending legal arguments. In one exchange Thursday, Vinroot said the city was seeking to throw a “monkey wrench” into “something that was already accomplished,” while Erteschik argued that the city wanted the restraining order when it did because a bill was not enacted until it was ratified.

Tensions

Earlier in the day, at a morning appearance in Charlotte, McCrory said he tried to strike a deal between the mostly Democratic Charlotte City Council and the GOP-dominated legislature. He said he was hoping for the creation of a study group to see what would be the best future for the airport.

McCrory said he and Kinsey, a Democrat, agree that they want the airport to continue operating smoothly, even if the General Assembly passed an authority bill and the city sues to stop it. He said he wants US Airways to keep its largest hub at Charlotte Douglas.

McCrory said the authority fight “would not have occurred” while he was mayor.

“During my tenure …I made a point of keeping politics out of the day-to-day operations of the airport,” he said. “The dilemma is since that point … there has been a feeling by some in the business community and US Airways that politics is starting to interfere. Now, that can be debated. But that debate never occurred during my tenure.”

Later on Thursday, McCrory said in an interview that he was asked about the past, not the present. “I was asked about the time when I was mayor. The circumstances are different now.”

Charlotte city officials have said they haven’t interfered with how the airport is being operated. They have said the General Assembly is guilty of meddling into airport affairs.

The Observer has previously reported that the authority push began early last year when US Airways and other business leaders became concerned that the city was trying to force Orr into retirement. Former City Council member Stan Campbell brought the issue to state lawmakers, but US Airways later said it was neutral on the legislation that was introduced.

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr on Thursday declined to comment on the city seeking a restraining order.

In a statement, Mohr said that the management of the airport is more important to the airline than the ownership. US Airways has repeatedly said that keeping Charlotte Douglas an inexpensive airport to operate from is crucial to maintaining its hub here.

“What’s important to US Airways is not who owns the airport, but that it be managed in a way that protects its value as an economic engine for the region,” said Mohr.

Vinroot hired

After Thursday’s court hearing, Vinroot said he was contacted a few days ago by people familiar with the legislation to see if he would be interested in representing the new authority if the city filed an expected lawsuit. He said he would be, but wasn’t officially hired until Orr called him after the legislation passed.

The city’s complaint was filed against the authority and the state of North Carolina. The attorney general’s office wanted to have a representative at the hearing but wasn’t able to arrive in time, Vinroot told Judge Sumner.

The former Republican mayor said at an Observer forum in May said he sees the airport as a regional asset, and said an authority with heavy Charlotte representation would be best, although he said the process for creating the authority “stinks.”

In his arguments to the court, Vinroot contended that it’s the legislature’s prerogative to take the airport away from Charlotte if it deems it necessary. “When the legislature decides (they) want something in your city managed in a different way, they have the absolute authority to decide that,” he told the Observer.

Vinroot noted that 110 years ago the legislature decided that a commission should run the Charlotte water system, and the state prevailed in a suit brought by the city.

Hagemann, the city attorney, said the city had been preparing for a legal challenge, as the legislature moved ahead with its bill. In the legal fight, it will be represented by former N.C. State Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr, a Republican, and Jim Phillips, a prominent Democratic trial attorney.

“We wanted to maintain the nonpartisan approach that the city has taken to this, with both Republican and Democratic city council members opposing this attempt by the legislature,” Hageman said. “We wanted to carry that forward with the legal team we put together.”

The bill passed by the legislature needed the signatures of House Speaker Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger before being enacted. A spokesman for Berger said the bill was ratified Thursday afternoon.

Although the judge set a hearing for July 29, Hagemann said it’s possible the city and the attorney’s general office could agree to extend that timeline. In the meantime, the new law will not take effect. “The city,” he said, “still has Charlotte Douglas International airport.”

In the day’s final development, Orr’s tenure ended after he sent a letter to Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee saying his employment as executive director of the airport authority had begun and his position at the city had ended, Carlee said in a statement.

After this “self-proclaimed termination,” Carlee said he named Brent Cagle, Chief Financial Officer of the Airport, as interim aviation director. Mr. Cagle is the Chief Financial Officer of the Airport. He immediately assumes full responsibility for the Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, Carlee said.

If the authority eventually goes forward, however, Orr is set to run the airport again. Cheryl Carpenter and Ely Por tillo contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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