For years Charlottes legislative battles were often defined by geography. Urban vs. rural. The Great State of Mecklenburg vs. the rest of North Carolina.
Now its a civil war, with city officials clashing with some of the countys own state lawmakers.
At stake is the future of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, one of the worlds busiest and a key to regional economic development. And at risk are future relations between a city and a legislature that holds broad power over it.
Insults are flying: Lawmakers are stealing the citys airport, pursuing an immoral end.
City officials are vindictive and childish and incredibly irresponsible.
I cant ever recall anything like this, says Bill McCoy, the retired director of UNC Charlottes Urban Institute. It seems like theres no common ground where people can talk about it. Its very personal.
In a dizzying sequence of events, the General Assembly on Thursday created a new airport authority to run the airport, saw the city persuade a judge to block it, and then watched the sudden departure of the longtime aviation director, Jerry Orr. City officials and Orr supporters couldnt even agree whether he resigned or was fired.
With that, an already rocky relationship got worse. Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, calls the atmosphere poisonous.
To be sure, the city and the state have worked together in other areas.
Last week, officials broke ground on a $1.1 billion extension of Charlottes light rail line, financed in large part with state money. And without a dissenting vote, lawmakers passed a bill to redo Mecklenburg Countys flawed 2011 property revaluation.
But some fear resentments over the airport will linger, jeopardizing not only future collaboration but Charlottes rise as one of the nations fastest-growing cities.
Its all very unfortunate, says Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan. The city and state need to be together. That is the face we present to the rest of the world from an economic development perspective.
The legislatures influence at the local level is profound.
In Mecklenburg and throughout the state, lawmakers control the purse strings for education, transportation and infrastructure. Legislators can rewrite regulations that affect everything from billboards to zoning. They can limit cities ability to annex and even de-annex neighborhoods without cities consent.
Some fear the airport fight has already set back years of work to build regional cooperation.
In April, frustrated by surrounding counties support for an airport authority, the City Council voted unanimously to withdraw support for a resolution in support of the proposed Monroe Connector-Bypass, a project long sought by Union County.
That was an example of the regional cooperation taken for granted, says Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat. Thats now in jeopardy because of the airport bill.
The Charlotte way fails
Last weeks drama was set in motion more than a year ago.
In early 2012, an executive with US Airways, the airports largest tenant, had a tense meeting with then-City Manager Curt Walton over how much say the airline would have over Orrs eventual successor.
Planning consultant Michael Gallis, who has worked with Orr, heard about the tensions and raised concerns with Stan Campbell, a former member of the City Council and Airport Advisory Committee. At the same time, developer Johnny Harris was warning of the politicization of the airport by city leaders he saw as paralyzed over a dispute about building a streetcar.US Airways forwarded a draft of possible authority legislation to Campbell. In December, Campbell approached Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican.
But the prospect of an authority only became public in February, shortly before Rucho filed legislation. He said lawmakers and still-unidentified business leaders thought the city was about to stop managing the airport wisely.
Blindsided, then-Mayor Anthony Foxx blasted the efforts of lawmakers in the backrooms of Raleigh. He and other city officials argued that the airport had grown and prospered under decades of city control.
Rucho quickly pushed the bill through the Senate. House leaders slowed it, allowing time for a city-funded study that concluded that an authority might be the best long-term model. As the conflict escalated, there were efforts to bring the sides together.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlottes former mayor, quietly urged compromise. So did business leaders such as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr.
GOP lawmakers proposed a joint study commission. Just last week, city leaders offered to put the airport under an independent commission that would be appointed by the city.
But each side spurned the other, even as late as Thursday.
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a House sponsor of the airport bill, called city leaders that morning, sweetening an offer for them to join legislators in studying airport governance. The city declined.
Samuelsons offer, backed by House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, was the latest effort and latest failure to resolve the issue by arriving at a consensus, the Charlotte way.
The business community and the city leaders I dont think had enough face-to-face dialogue to work out their differences among themselves before coming to the state, McCrory told the Observer.
They need to first try everything they can to try to resolve the problem internally. That was the Charlotte way that fell apart.
City leaders, however, blame McCrory for characterizing the fight as a local dispute and not doing more to help the city he led for 14 years.
Suburbs vs. cities
In Charlotte, the airport fight united the City Councils two Republicans and nine Democrats. All opposed the loss of city control of Charlotte Douglas. But in Raleigh, the battle became strictly partisan.
Virtually all Republicans voted for the authority. Almost all Democrats opposed it.
Charlotte wasnt the only city to clash with the General Assemblys GOP majority. Asheville, Greensboro and Raleigh also saw the legislature wade into local issues.
When lawmakers voted to transfer Ashevilles water system to a Metropolitan Sewerage District in May, the city went to court to stop it. A Superior Court judge has so far blocked the transfer. A hearing next month will consider a permanent injunction
What were facing is pretty unprecedented, says Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, a Democrat. Our court case will truly define what power a municipality has to stand on its own.
In the big scheme of things, it has diminished trust between the state and the city.
Such battles arent peculiar to North Carolina.
In Georgia, Republican lawmakers redrew voting districts for the Fulton County commission to give GOP voters more clout. Theres also a move to give Republican-leaning suburbs more control over Atlantas public transit system.
As in Georgia, North Carolinas fight also featured lawmakers from Republican suburbs against leaders of Democratic-run cities. Two of the main sponsors of the airport bill were Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, both Republicans from suburban Matthews.
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, calls the dispute part of the states growing pains. North Carolina, once dominated by rural interests, has seen political power shift to Republican-leaning suburbs and Democratic-controlled cities.
The smaller areas are having to fight back, Apodaca says. The cities are growing so large, trying to take over everything.
Repairing the wounds
City Manager Ron Carlee came to Charlotte this spring from a job in northern Virginia as chief operating officer for the International City/County Management Association.
He found himself thrust in the middle of the citys most bitter and polarized dispute in years.
I would love to be in a less political environment, he says.
Demographic changes have fueled that environment.
Youve got a regional delegation that is mostly Republican and a city government that is increasingly Democrat, says John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. Its not just a partisan dynamic. Its an ideological dynamic. They simply have different views.
Those differences played out on other fronts, including the citys efforts to get money to help the Carolina Panthers. Brawley, the Republican legislator, says hes rarely been able to reach agreement with the city on a host of bills, such as those affecting urban design standards or other urban regulations.
Ive never been able to approach them with an issue and been able to work it out. Their answer is no, he says. We dont have to like each other; we just have to get along.
Because the General Assembly has enormous clout over cities, urban leaders in Charlotte and elsewhere are dependent on working relationships.
So theres going to have to be some healing done, says Republican City Council member Andy Dulin, an outspoken critic of the airport authority.
With the current legislative session expected to wrap up this week, Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, says his group will continue to try to find common ground.
We look forward to having more conversations between sessions about how local (officials) and members of the General Assembly can work more cooperatively to serve the citizens of the state, he says.
Samuelson says she sees conflict as an opportunity.
The (Charlotte City) Council and legislature will have to continue to try to work together if we want whats best for Charlotte, she says.
Weve learned some lessons in this. Hopefully theyre positive lessons.
Staff writers Michael Gordon and Ely Portillo contributed.
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