Eight months after the fight to take control of Charlotte’s airport from the city began, common ground is still in short supply, as Mecklenburg legislators can’t agree on fundamental facts surrounding the dispute.
The disagreements were vividly on display last week at a forum for legislators sponsored by the Observer.
Lawmakers argued about basic questions: Was the way the General Assembly passed the airport bill constitutional? Did former aviation director Jerry Orr quit, or was he fired? Did a high school student breach airport security to stow away on a US Airways jet in 2010?
The ongoing disputes highlight the level of rancor surrounding the airport fight and the depth of divisions within the Mecklenburg legislative delegation – rifts that are likely to continue beyond this year’s session.
About the only things lawmakers agree on are the necessity of protecting Charlotte’s US Airways hub, and that the fight will likely now end in a courtroom.
From the start, lawmakers disagreed over whether there was even a problem at the airport.
“That’s why you have all this uncertainty,” said state Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, who opposed creating an airport commission. “People are expressing their opinions as if they’re fact.”
“We felt like there were problems at the airport,” said Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, at the forum. “They (the Democrats) felt like there were not.”
After the legislature passed a bill creating a regional airport authority last month, lawmakers repealed that bill and replaced it with a new law creating a 13-member commission to oversee the airport. Charlotte would appoint seven of the commission members.
But a judge blocked implementation of the law after Charlotte filed a lawsuit. The case is currently awaiting a decision from the Federal Aviation Administration on whether the commission can actually run the airport.
Here’s what lawmakers had to say this week about the airport fight.
Airport costs and revenue diversion
Money is at the core of the fight over the airport. State Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, said at the forum that he had seen enough to convince him the city was trying to get its “hands in the cookie jar.”
Republican lawmakers said they had to create a new commission to run Charlotte Douglas International Airport because the city was seeking to siphon the airport’s money to fund projects such as the streetcar, which would be a violation of federal law. That would put the airport’s future as a major hub in doubt, they said.
Democrats, however, said the Republican legislature made a power grab in taking control of the airport from the city, following similar moves to give control of Asheville’s airport and water system to regional bodies.
Republicans point to ideas thrown around by city officials such as a tax on airport parking spaces that could raise $3.9 million a year. That idea was raised at a Nov. 26 budget meeting. A draft of a Charlotte Area Transit System funding plan also contained the idea of locating streetcar maintenance facilities on the airport grounds to save money, as well as subsidizing rides to the airports.
“You could put US Airways out of business in Charlotte,” by raising costs at the airport, said Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg. Charlotte Douglas is one of the lowest-cost major airports for airlines to operate from in the nation.
Former aviation director Jerry Orr said it was always a concern, over his entire 38-year career at the airport, that the city might try to divert airport revenue. But his concern intensified recently because of “the search for money and the city wanting to do more and more projects” such as the streetcar, Orr told the Observer Friday.
The streetcar maintenance idea wasn’t in CATS’ final draft. And Charlotte officials have said city leaders dropped the parking tax idea once they were told they couldn’t legally impose such a tax. Council never formally discussed the idea of taxing the parking, and Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the airport was incorrectly listed as part of the budget workshop presentation.
“Since the parking facilities at the Airport are operated by the City, even if such a tax were levied on businesses that operate parking facilities, such a tax would not apply at the Airport,” the city said in a statement.
The bill creating the new commission to oversee Charlotte Douglas was passed as a so-called local bill, since it affects fewer than 15 counties. That means it didn’t need to go to Gov. Pat McCrory for his signature or veto, sparing the former Charlotte mayor from a potentially awkward situation.
But Democrats say that violated the North Carolina state Constitution. State Sen. Dan Clodfelter, D-Mecklenburg, said the constitution empowers the General Assembly to pass laws for building, operating and financing airports, but that those must be general bills, not local. That contention is one of the city’s points in a lawsuit aiming to block the bill.
“I’ve done a lot of digging on this,” said Clodfelter. “When the constitution tells the General Assembly it is to enact general laws on that matter, then no local ... act can be passed.”
Republicans see it differently. They say only bills concerning state facilities need to be passed as general bills, and bills about locally-owned and operated airports can indeed be passed as local bills.
“That refers to facilities like the Global TransPark, which the state owns and operates,” said Brawley. He pointed out that many airport-specific bills have been passed as local bills over the past two decades.
Clodfelter agreed that airport bills have been passed as local laws, but he said that only means no one has challenged those laws. “That doesn’t make them constitutional,” Clodfelter added.
Ultimately, the constitutionality of the bill will likely end up in the courts.
“It’s going to be up to a judge to decide if something like this applies here,” said Frayda Bluestein, professor of public law and government at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government. “The nature of the provision they’re relying on is quite technical.”
Brawley admitted the legal outcome isn’t certain.
“There’s arguments on both sides. Where that ends up, I don’t know,” he said.
Delvonte Tisdale and security costs
Another flashpoint in the airport debate revolves around the mysterious death of a 16-year-old North Mecklenburg High School student. In November 2010, Delvonte Tisdale disappeared from Charlotte and was found dead outside of Boston hours later, his body badly damaged; he was under a flight path.
Puzzled investigators eventually concluded that Tisdale likely breached airport security and stowed away in the wheel well of a Boston-bound US Airways jet. He died during the flight and fell from the wheel well when the plane lowered its landing gear on the approach to Boston, investigators said. They pointed to evidence such as a handprint in the wheel well and clothing matching Tisdale’s found under the plane’s approach path.
The bizarre incident prompted the city to put Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police in charge of the airport’s police force, which had previously reported to Orr. The move raised costs from $2.6 million to $5.5 million in fiscal year 2013 as CMPD added staff and existing airport officers moved to CMPD’s higher pay scales.
The higher police costs are ultimately paid by the airlines through fees.
But Graham said even if airport costs did increase, Charlotte Douglas is still exceptionally inexpensive.
“Even when the city added more security with CMPD, US Airways was still operating in one of the lowest-cost airports in the world,” he said. “If the city had done nothing, the other side would be complaining that they had done nothing.”
Charlotte Douglas has the lowest cost-per-enplaned passenger of any of the hub airports that would be in the combined US Airways-American, if the two airlines win approval for their proposed merger. Data from agency Fitch Ratings show Charlotte Douglas’ cost to airlines is 96 cents per enplaned passenger, and it is expected to stay below $1 through 2017.
That compares with $5.23 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, the next lowest US Airways-American hub. Cost-per-enplaned passenger is $19.72 at Miami International Airport and $12.13 at Los Angeles International Airport.
But three years later, there are still disagreements on the basic facts of the Tisdale case. Republican lawmakers and Orr said there’s no conclusive evidence that Tisdale was in the wheel well.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence other than speculation that he breached airport security,” Orr told the Observer.
A US Airways spokeswoman said in a statement that the company is “not aware of any evidence that the young man ever breached security or was in the wheel well of a US Airways aircraft or any other aircraft.
“Due to this lack of evidence, we do not think that this tragedy should have been cited as a reason for policy changes at Charlotte Douglas International Airport,” said the company.
Proponents of continued city control disagree.
“Either he was in that wheel well or he wasn’t,” Graham said. “Everything I’ve read supports that he was.”
Orr: Fired or resigned?
During the fight over the airport, the longtime aviation director became another flashpoint. More than a month after he was removed from his city job, lawmakers are still arguing over whether he resigned or was fired.
The day the state passed its first authority bill, Orr sent Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee a letter saying he was head of the authority and no longer worked for the city. “My employment as Executive Director of the Airport Authority commenced and my employment by the City as Aviation Director terminated” when the law passed, Orr wrote.
When the city won an injunction temporarily blocking the airport authority, Carlee said Orr had resigned his city job and replaced him with an interim manager.
Republican legislators say Orr was fired, with the city using the letter as its excuse to oust him.
“Mr. Orr was just notifying the city that this bill passed,” said State Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, at the forum. “What kind of business sense gets rid of the most knowledgeable person running the airport?”
Samuelson acknowledged Orr’s letter, but said it was still the city’s decision to remove him.
“If someone tenders a resignation, you don’t have to receive it,” said Samuelson at the forum.
Democrats and city officials maintain that Orr resigned, however, with his letter.
“He outsmarted himself,” said Graham.
Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter @ESPortillo
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