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On airport expertise, where’s the upgrade?

Stripping control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from Charlotte’s City Council was imperative, the argument went, because council members didn’t have the expertise needed to oversee such a large and complex organization.

True, council critics conceded, the airport grew to become the nation’s sixth-busiest and perhaps its best-run under 78 years of city management. And true, the day-to-day operations were led by Airport Director Jerry Orr, not the City Council.

Even so, said those who pushed for an independent commission, the airport would be in better hands if governed by a group with specialized knowledge about running airports.

Now the 13-member commission has been appointed.

If the courts decide that the commission is in charge, we’ll have gotten rid of the businessman, the lawyer, the entrepreneur, the real estate agent and the banker who are among the City Council members currently overseeing the airport. We will have replaced them with a businessman, a lawyer, an entrepreneur, a real estate agent and a banker, among others. We will have replaced the current city manager with a former city manager.

Hmph. Some upgrade.

And the airport expertise? Well, one appointee is a real estate appraiser who also owns a 2,500-foot grass landing strip in Kannapolis and does airplane appraising. One is a former NASA astronaut, but her rockets didn’t take off from city airports. One serves on the current Airport Advisory Committee. One lives near the airport. Beyond that, a mastery of airport operations was not, apparently, high on the list of criteria.

All 13 members of the airport commission were appointed by, you guessed it, politicians. Their appointments were, by and large, political. One is the wife of a City Council member. One is a former chair of the Democratic Party. Another lists Harvey Gantt, Mel Watt and other big-name Democrats as references on his resume. Three others are politicians or former politicians themselves.

And many are accomplished businesspeople. This is not to disparage the new appointees; they appear to be as capable as the City Council of overseeing Charlotte Douglas. But after the pain and turmoil the debate over the airport has caused, shouldn’t citizens be getting more than that?

As state Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, put it: “We didn’t gain anything other than legal bills.”

The legislation creating the commission says members should have experience in aviation, logistics, construction or fields such as law and finance “when practical.” Commission lawyer Richard Vinroot and lead legislative supporter Sen. Bob Rucho argue that several of the appointees have business experience that will make them better overseers than the City Council.

But the bottom line is obvious: While the legislature’s move was touted as an effort to rid the airport of politics, the law simply replaces a set of elected political figures with a set of unelected political appointees. Was that really worth the pain?

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