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Vinroot says Jerry Orr was fired, city says he resigned

Ely Portillo, Rick Rothacker & Steve Harrison
elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com

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Should Jerry Orr continue as director of Charlotte Douglas International Airport?

Charlotte’s former aviation director Jerry Orr is now squarely in the middle of the fight for control of the city’s airport, following what the city called Orr’s “self-proclaimed termination” Thursday night.

Although Orr’s tenure as aviation director ended abruptly, the former aviation director and his supporters expect that he’ll be back: A law passed Thursday to create the Charlotte Airport Authority specifies that Orr will be the airport director.

The law was blocked when a judge signed a temporary restraining order.

Orr told the Observer he still believes that he is director of the airport authority, but he acknowledged that the legal status of the authority is in question.

“That’s up to the courts,” Orr said. When asked whether he will return as director of Charlotte Douglas International Airport should the authority be enacted, Orr said, “That would be my guess.”

Orr and his opponents differed on the circumstances of his removal. Former Mayor Richard Vinroot, an attorney representing Orr, told the Observer that Orr had been fired. But city officials said Orr had resigned from his job by declaring himself director of the new Charlotte Airport Authority – before it actually existed.

Vinroot, an attorney, said Orr called him shortly before 6 p.m. and said someone from the city was coming to the airport for a conference.

Vinroot said that assistant city manager Ron Kimble was there, and told Orr during a conference call with City Attorney Bob Hagemann that the city believed that Orr had resigned because of a letter Orr sent the city detailing his new responsibilities under an authority.

Vinroot said the letter wasn’t a resignation, but city officials asked Orr to leave the premises immediately.

“They interpreted that as a resignation,” said Vinroot. “I interpreted it as a firing.”

He said Orr left around 6:30 p.m. “I’ve lost track of time,” said Vinroot, who said the departure of the longtime aviation director shocked him.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said Orr had resigned. “Jerry Orr wrote me today that his ‘employment as Executive Director of the Airport Authority commenced and (his) employment by the City as Aviation Director terminated’ with passage of the state legislation,” Carlee said in a statement. A copy of the letter provided by the city confirmed Carlee’s account.

“With his self-proclaimed termination, I notified Mr. Orr that I was naming Brent Cagle 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.

Orr said he did not intend for the letter to be a resignation from his city job.

“My understanding of what I was doing was complying with the letter of the law,” said Orr. “(The letter) said the law passed, and according to the law, I am director of the new authority.”

Orr has worked for the airport since 1975. He has been aviation director since 1989 and is widely respected by those in the aviation industry. A taciturn manager with a dry sense of humor, he is often credited with growing Charlotte Douglas from a regional airport to a major US Airways hub with more than 700 flights a day, by keeping costs extremely low.

“We think the world of Jerry,” US Airways CEO Doug Parker told the Observer in March. He said he hoped Orr, 72, would run the airport “forever.”

When asked what he thought about being removed, Orr said he wasn’t ready to talk about that.

Supporters of the airport authority slammed Orr’s removal.

State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican who introduced the original authority bill, said the city endangered Charlotte Douglas.

“By their action, it showed their vindictive and childish behavior by putting the entire airport at risk,” he said. Rucho said the city used Orr’s letter “as an excuse to fire him.”

Carlee said if Orr returns to the airport as director of the new authority, he will work with him.

“If he’s back in the seat, I will work with him,” Carlee said. “It’s nothing personal.”

Staff writer Jim Morrill contributed

Portillo: 704-358-5041
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