A letter to federal officials from the N.C. Department of Justice bolsters the case for a new Charlotte airport commission, a lawyer for the commission said Wednesday.
But Charlotte’s city attorney said the letter “really isn’t a big deal.”
Writing to the Federal Aviation Administration this week, Special Deputy Attorney General Marc Bernstein said a new commission would not entail a transfer of airport control from the city of Charlotte to a new entity, as the city argues.
Instead, he wrote, “it merely redistributes governing authority within the City.”
The letter is the latest development in a six-month battle for control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which now awaits a decision by the FAA.
For months, the General Assembly debated and finally passed legislation transferring airport control from the city to an independent authority. Then, in the last week of their session, lawmakers repealed the measure and passed a bill creating a new commission.
The commission was designed as a hybrid.
With a majority of its 13 members appointed by the city, it would control day-to-day operations, including personnel decisions, finances and expansion plans – duties now handled by an aviation director appointed by the city manager.
The city would retain ownership of the airport and its land, along with the power of eminent domain and custody of the airport’s revenue bonds.
As soon as lawmakers created the commission, the city won a court injunction to block it.
Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin ruled earlier this month that the commission can’t be implemented until the FAA clarifies whether the airport’s operating certificate would be valid under a commission or until the FAA issues a new certificate. Ervin formally filed his injunction this week.
While blocking the commission from taking immediate control, it says if the FAA concludes there is no transfer from the city to a separate entity, the commission can ask to lift the injunction.
“Both the judge’s order and the AG’s letter support what we’ve been saying from the beginning,” said commission attorney Richard Vinroot, a former Charlotte mayor.
But City Attorney Bob Hagemann disagreed.
“There’s nothing new in the letter because what they put in writing is exactly what they argued to the judge,” he said.
“We think that’s a ruling in our favor, not theirs. I don’t know how that could be interpreted as anything other than favorable to the city and contrary to what Richard Vinroot and his client wanted.”
In FAA’s hands
In a July 29 letter to the city and the attorney general, an FAA official asked the state Justice Department for a formal legal opinion. Bernstein, of the attorney general’s office, makes it clear that his letter is not a formal opinion.
At least for now, the airport’s fate appears to be in the hands of the FAA. An FAA spokesman did not respond to an interview request.
Even if the FAA decides the commission can control the airport, the battle won’t necessarily be over. Hagemann said continued litigation is possible.
If a commission is eventually approved, the former aviation director, Jerry Orr, would get his job back. He was replaced by the city after the commission bill passed.
Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who fought for continued city control, is now the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, which oversees the FAA. He has officially recused himself from the airport issue, and has said he won’t comment on Charlotte-related matters. Staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.
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