It was almost laughable to hear former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, representing a commission the N.C. legislature foisted on the city, complain last week that Charlotte officials might game the system to get the Federal Aviation Administration to slow or block transferring control of the Charlotte Douglas International Airport to that commission. Almost.
Vinroots lament was in response to a ruling from Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge John Ervin on Thursday. Ervin kept in place an injunction blocking the independent commission ordered in a bill the N.C. General Assembly passed a week ago in the final days of its session. Ervin ruled the commission cant be implemented until the FAA, which expressed concerns about the arrangement in a recent letter, approves the airports operating certificate under the new set-up.
Vinroot, who also represents Jerry Orr, the airports director who either was fired or resigned, had pressed the judge to lift the order. He said it was essential that Orr be reinstalled at the airport the legislation specifies him as the director to ensure its continued success. Of the city, Vinroot said: I think what theyve decided to do is hang on to whatever thread they can. ... We want them to work with us to resolve things with the FAA. Really?
It shouldnt surprise Vinroot that the city is fighting the airport takeover tooth and nail. It was a battle that state lawmakers needlessly engaged to fix problems that didnt exist. Sen. Bob Ruchos surprise legislation in February to seize the airport from Charlotte and give control and the assets to an independent, mostly state-appointed regional authority started a sequence of events that has cost the city and state money and could jeopardize the future of the well-run, low-cost airport.
Look no further than Charleston to see the pitfalls of an independent airport authority. The airport director recently resigned following meddling and alleged verbal abuse by authority board members. That director, Sue Stevens, claims that some members engaged in unethical and possibly illegal conduct. Among the allegations? That members inappropriately got airport jobs for friends and were too involved in bids for airport contracts.
Most of the Charleston authoritys 13-member board is appointed by state legislators, and surprise! most of the members are elected officials or former politicians. The Charleston Post & Courier reports that the board is made up of a lot of people friendly to Charlestons legislative delegation. S.C. legislators even passed a law to put legislators on the authority. That move is being challenged in court. Last week, the authority hired a new director, State Sen. Paul Campbell, who has no experience running airports and says he doesnt need to resign from the legislature to do the job.
This is the model Rucho originally tried to ram through for Charlotte. Thankfully, wiser heads prevailed. But the commission approved by the N.C. legislature still poses risks to Charlottes long-time, smooth-running airport operation.
Unlike Charlestons independently owned and run authority, Charlotte retains ownership of the airport and its land in the airport legislation. It also keeps the power of eminent domain and custody of the airports revenue bonds, which city leaders had said were at risk of default under the original bill that seized everything. But the independent commission would control day-to-day operations, including personnel decisions, finances and expansion plans. Looking at whats happening in Charleston, thats where the real potential for devilment clearly lies.
City and state policymakers disregard Charlestons cautionary tale at their peril. Whatever the FAA decides, its still up to local and state leaders to ensure the continued success of one of the citys and regions best assets. We taxpayers, and voters, are watching to see if they do.
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