Charlotte’s airport will for now remain under the control of its interim leader, as city officials and former Aviation Director Jerry Orr await a court hearing next week to resolve who’s in charge.
Capping a six-month political brawl, lawmakers early Friday passed a law that shifts control of the airport from the city to a 13-member commission and places Orr back at the helm.
But the city of Charlotte could challenge the law after winning a temporary restraining order against similar legislation passed last week creating a new airport authority.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee, at a news conference Friday afternoon, called the law “extremely complex” and said it would be premature for him to talk about the city’s options.
“The city is not making rash judgments about what it does or does not do,” he said. “… We will consider all of the options and evaluate them.”
Mayor Patsy Kinsey has called a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. Monday, Carlee said.
Carlee’s remarks seemed to take a step back from previous vows to fight any new law, leaving open the possibility that the city could accept the commission.
The new law takes steps to address some of the issues raised by the city in its earlier legal challenge, including leaving the city responsible for issuing airport bonds and keeping airport property in the city’s hands. The commission, however, would be in charge of airport operations and finances.
Orr earlier Friday said he’s pleased that the law passed by the General Assembly puts him back in a familiar role, but he’ll let the legal process play out before going back to work.
“It’ll take what time it takes,” Orr, who was ousted last week, said after an earlier news conference. “We just want an orderly transition.”
Orr’s lawyer, former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, said that he wasn’t sure if the restraining order would affect the new commission but he planned to be in court for a hearing scheduled on Thursday.
“We’re certainly not going to be riding in like MacArthur,” Vinroot said.
Orr lost his position last week on a roller-coaster day that saw the General Assembly pass a bill creating a new authority, only to have it blocked in a Charlotte courtroom soon after. City officials said Orr resigned, anticipating the creation of the new authority, while Vinroot said he was fired.
Carlee last week named Brent Cagle interim aviation director. He was formerly an assistant airport director overseeing finance at Charlotte Douglas.
At the news conference, Carlee criticized state lawmakers who have made comments critical of the airport’s interim leadership in recent days.
“The airport is being led by a team hired and trained by Jerry Orr,” Carlee said. “… I have the full confidence in the staff that Jerry Orr hired.”
But he also praised efforts to de-escalate the tension over who is running Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the world’s sixth-busiest airport by takeoffs and landings, ahead of Thursday’s hearing. He said a number of legal issues still needed to be answered, including whether Orr was an employee again of the airport and back on the payroll.
The Federal Aviation Administration is also reviewing the legislation. The FAA must approve all transfers to ensure the new operator has the expertise to run the facility and can comply with safety regulations, the agency said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former Charlotte mayor whose department includes the FAA, has recused himself of all matters related to Charlotte.
The airport’s largest carrier, US Airways, declined to comment on Orr’s status and the new legislation.
Orr, 72, has worked for the airport since 1975. He has been aviation director since 1989 and is widely respected by those in the aviation industry. 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.
Orr applauded lawmakers for passing the legislation on Friday and said it would “preserve and protect” the airport’s future. He said he didn’t like compromises made in the latest bill, but didn’t specifically list what he didn’t like.
Vinroot highlighted a provision in the bill that would create a five-member oversight committee to monitor the commission’s effectiveness for two years. The members would be appointed by the governor, the House speaker, the Senate president, the Charlotte mayor and the Charlotte city council.
‘Wounds are open’
The North Carolina legislature, plowing into the wee hours and past the objections of Democrats, gave final approval early Friday to a measure creating the Charlotte airport commission.
After the House adjourned on Friday, tension remained high with the Mecklenburg County delegation.
“I certainly think right now wounds are open,” Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat who had opposed the commission, said. “I was appalled at the process.”
Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a sponsor of the airport legislation, said she made repeated efforts to work with the city of Charlotte, including offering legislation that would have called for a study of how to run the airport before making changes.
“When people say, ‘Gee, you waited to the last minute and rammed this through,’ that’s because I gave the city to the last minute to work with us,” she said. “And finally when it became clear we would run out of time and they were not going to do the study we started running the bill. But I continued to try to get them to do this study up until the time of the vote in the Senate chamber (on Friday.)”
House Speaker Thom Tillis acknowledged tension in the delegation over the airport issue, but emphasized his efforts to honor funding commitments made to Charlotte in prior state budgets.
“If we can let the temperature lower and you take a look at a number of good things we’ve done for Charlotte,” Tillis said. “Our relationship will be fine and we’ll get past this.”
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