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Another ugly turn in fight over airport

In the middle of a battle over control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the city of Charlotte decided to spend more than $350,000 on an exhaustive examination of airport operations. But, says interim aviation director Brent Cagle, this full body scan is not about digging up dirt on his former boss, Jerry Orr.

City Manager Ron Carlee says the same, and at a news conference Monday he offered frequent praise for the former aviation director. But he also announced some less-than-praiseworthy findings he’s already discovered about the airport under Orr, including questionable financial reporting and sloppy accounting that stretches back decades.

None of the irregularities involved intentional wrongdoing, and none was particularly egregious. Even Carlee characterized them as the product of growing pains - an airport trying to keep pace with itself as it becomes one of the largest in the country.

Yet they were worthy of a news conference? It seemed petty. It seemed unprofessional. It seemed to be without a real point.

Was Carlee trying to show the public – along with Republican lawmakers who’ve tried to transfer airport control to an Orr-led independent commission – that the former director wasn’t all he’s been cracked up to be? Were Carlee and Cagle trying to show they are more capable of operating the city’s multi-billion dollar jewel?

Either point could have been made after the city’s airport examination was complete – and perhaps even after the courts have ruled on whether the city must turn over control of the airport to the commission.

Instead, Carlee may have affirmed some suspicions that the city’s examination of the airport was a witch hunt against Orr. Holding a premature news conference seemed designed for two purposes: 1) To embarrass the former director, and 2) To show how the airport under Orr was already doing what Republicans accused Charlotte of contemplating – using airport money for city purposes. Specifically, Carlee’s audit found the airport loaned the city $3.45 million for an animal shelter and helicopter hangar expansion. The money was never repaid.

But those potential problems, along with the other irregularities Carlee detailed, also cast a less-than-positive light on the city that was supposed to be supervising Charlotte Douglas and its director. Similarly, those “loans” actually help strengthen the state’s case for a commission by showing how easily a city can use creative accounting to take advantage of the airport’s assets.

To that end, we’re glad Carlee wants the city to be transparent about such problems, just as he’s been candid about other issues Charlotte has faced since he took the city manager position earlier this year. He’s also, to this point, vigorously defended the city’s control of the airport without taking the low road that others have traveled.

But on Monday he looked vindictive. He looked small. The fight over the airport has had enough of that already.

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