RALEIGH Late Wednesday, legislators were crafting a deal to roll back the Charlotte Airport Authority and replace it with a majority city-appointed commission. Under the proposal, Charlotte would retain ownership of the airport, and former aviation director Jerry Orr would return to his old job.
About a dozen members of the Mecklenburg delegation, including Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson, huddled Wednesday night in a small group outside the House meeting chamber to discuss the proposed deal.
House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, confirmed Wednesday night that the talks were occurring. But he said he didnt know if Charlotte leaders were in the loop.
According to a source with knowledge of the proposal, the compromise would create a commission to oversee the airport and supervise day-to-day operations. A majority of members would be appointed by the city.
That body would replace the 11-member authority, which was approved by the legislature last week and would include members from Mecklenburgs surrounding counties.
Under the new proposal, the city would keep ownership of airport property and oversee its finances. As part of the deal, Orr would return as airport director. He was ousted last week after 24 years at the position.
Legislators also want to head off a lawsuit the city filed last week to block implementation of the airport authority.
It wasnt clear Wednesday night if the deal would be able to pass in the waning days of the state legislature. Charlotte city leaders still need to review the proposal. And legislative leaders in the House and Senate have only a few days to push the bill through. They hope to end the legislative session by this weekend.
Earlier Wednesday, City Attorney Bob Hagemann downplayed the possibility of a deal.
We werent near agreement and at this point there are no ongoing discussions, said Hagemann, who attended a meeting Monday with McCrory, former mayor Richard Vinroot, who backs the authority, and others.
McCrory, however, said in a statement that conversations continue in an effort to resolve the dispute over Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Sen. President Pro Tem Phil Berger said legislators would consider a settlement if one is proposed.
The legislation that created the authority last week launched the city on a legal battle to put it on ice.
Attorneys for both sides have verbally agreed to reschedule a Monday court hearing on a restraining order granted last week for Aug. 1, Hagemann said. The delay was based on the courts scheduling, he said.
City Manager Ron Carlee said Wednesday that a trustee for the airports $800 million in outstanding bonds had warned that the bonds would default if an authority was created. That left the city no choice but to get a restraining order, he said.
We would have had 30 days to remedy it, which of course we could not have done, Carlee told reporters before addressing the Uptown Democratic Forum. Weve been saying this from day one and people have been passing it forward, saying itll be taken care of. Its not something you can be flippant about.
The meeting with McCrory came four days after the city went to court.
These issues have yet to be resolved, the governors statement said Wednesday. Conversations continue.
Berger, the Senate president, hinted that the legislative fight over Charlotte Douglas might not be over.
Im not sure at this point were going to do anything, but as were in session, somethings always possible, he said. Once I hear and our members hear that theres a recommendation to do something different, well consider it.
Legislative leaders are trying to wrap up the General Assembly session by Friday morning.
State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican and key supporter of the airport authority and original sponsor of the bill discounted talks of a new compromise.
Theres a law out there. The law is clear: The authority is supposed to be implemented, said Rucho. He also said he believes the city will lose its court case and Jerry Orr, former aviation director, will be restored as airport director.
US Airways chief executive Doug Parker says the company isnt concerned that political turmoil at the airport will hurt the companys Charlotte hub. But he praised Orrs leadership at the airport and called the current situation unfortunate.
Under Jerrys leadership, it has been exceptionally well-run, and his model, I think, is what communities and airlines like to see from an airport, Parker said Wednesday in response to questions from the Observer during a conference call with investors.
Whats going on there is, we believe, unfortunate, Parker said. Everything was going really well at Charlotte Douglas. You hate to see something like that.
Parker said US Airways has talked with Charlotte leaders and McCrory, and has received assurances that the controversy around the airports governance wont impact the airports operations.
Were confident that will be the case, he said. Everyone there has been very forthcoming.
Carlee told the Democratic forum that he stays in constant contact with the airline.
I dont do anything on the airport without letting them know, so they wont be caught by surprise, he said.
US Airways busiest hub is at Charlotte Douglas, where the company operates about 650 daily flights. The hub is widely viewed by city and business leaders as one of Charlottes most important economic assets.
Earlier this year, Parker joked that he hoped Orr, 72, would run the airport forever. Orrs low-cost model and revenue-sharing with US Airways have helped keep Charlotte Douglas as an extremely low-cost airport for US Airways to operate from.
Parker declined to say whether the airline hopes that Orr will return as aviation director. That would happen if the city loses its bid for an injunction to block the airport authority.
We look forward to getting this behind us, he said.
Not a personal issue
Mayor Pro Tem Patrick Cannon, appearing with Carlee at the Democratic forum, said McCrory, while mayor, once went ballistic when a Charlotte transit authority was proposed.
I dont know the difference, he said of the airport authority, but they kind of look and sound the same.
Cannon proposed that the city and legislators consider a hybrid authority that would operate under the auspices of the city but with firewalls to prevent political interference. Los Angeles, Atlanta and Chicago have such authorities, he said.
Carlee said Orr had retained legal counsel and created a letterhead for the new authority before the legislation passed. Orr was ousted from his position after delivering a letter, Carlee said, that labeled him the director of the new authority.
Orr and Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle had lunch together on Monday, with Carlees blessings.
This is not a personal issue, not a political issue. Its a business issue and needs to be done in a very businesslike way, Carlee said.
Carlee said a city-paid consultant who recommended an airport authority for Charlotte didnt understand the city manager-council form of government, which he said prevents the political meddling legislators cited in creating the authority.
The new city manager said he met with legislators soon after beginning his job in April.
What became really clear is that their only goal was to take the airport The authority was their bottom line, Carlee said.
Henderson: 704-358-5051 Twitter: @bhender
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