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Airport commission’s first meeting to be mostly informational as legal fight drags on

The first meeting of the Charlotte Airport Commission next month will likely be largely informational, as the legal fight over control of the airport blocks the commission from exercising most of its powers.

Advocates who favor the commission rather than the city running Charlotte Douglas International Airport say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With the city’s lawsuit to block the commission still in court, the commission’s 13 new members – many of whom don’t know each other – will have a chance to get to know the airport before they take the reins.

“There may be some value in them having the time to study it in the cool of night before taking over in the heat of the morning,” said former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, an attorney representing the commission.

The N.C. General Assembly in July created the new commission, after backers said it was needed to prevent political meddling in airport affairs. The city said it was an unnecessary power grab and went to court to block the move.

Although the court has yet to decide the issue, commission members have been appointed by the City Council; Mayor Patsy Kinsey; and the county commissioners in Mecklenburg, Lincoln, Cabarrus, Iredell, Union and Gaston counties, as required under the law.

Commission members said they plan to spend their first meeting getting to know the airport.

“I’m a little curious as to what our legal status is,” said Jim Lawton, appointed by Iredell County. “It sounds to me like they’re getting everyone together to get an orientation ... so if the day does come when we legally run it, we’re ready to go.”

Lanny Lancaster, a Cabarrus County real estate agent and airplane appraiser, said “it’s going to be a learning process” to familiarize himself with Charlotte Douglas.

“I’m going to be very open-minded, listen to what’s said and learn as much as I can,” Lancaster said of his plans for the first meeting.

The next court date in the legal fight has yet to be set. Vinroot is pushing for a Nov. 1 hearing, but the city wants a later date. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that until a judge decides whether the commission is valid, it won’t grant the panel the authority to run the airport.

At the hearing, Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin will have to consider three motions related to the city’s lawsuit seeking to block the commission.

Vinroot has moved for summary judgment against the city on some of its claims. N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office, which has also sided with the commission, filed a motion to dismiss the case. The city has filed a motion to amend its complaint and add more claims.

Ervin could rule immediately, or he could consider the case and issue his ruling later.

Orr working on agenda

Under the terms of the General Assembly’s law, the commission would control all aspects of the airport’s operations except issuing bonds. The city would retain ownership of the airport’s property.

But until Ervin’s injunction is lifted, the commission is forbidden from exercising most of its powers. Under the injunction, the only things the commission can do are adopt an official seal, choose an office, buy insurance, and conduct its lawsuit against the city.

The other power the commission has that’s not blocked is the power to choose its executive director and set his or her pay.

The General Assembly law passed this summer specifically names Jerry Orr as the initial executive director of the Charlotte Airport Commission. Orr was removed from his city job as aviation director in July, after the General Assembly bill passed. He and the city still disagree over whether he “self-terminated” and resigned or was fired.

He is still receiving his $211,000 annual salary, paid for with airport funds. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle, a city employee, is currently head of the airport, but Orr would get to run the airport again if the commission is able to take control of Charlotte Douglas.

In a letter to the commission this weekend, Orr, 72, said he will retire by June 2015, his first public announcement of a retirement date.

Orr also said he plans to give commission members an “orientation” to the airport at their first meeting. Vinroot said Orr is helping to create the agenda for the Nov. 7 meeting.

While Vinroot said he believes the outstanding legal issues can be resolved and the commission put in charge of the airport quickly, Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said he doesn’t expect the fight to end soon.

“Whoever loses in a trial court, I would expect to appeal,” Hagemann said. “Experience shows that getting a case to appeals court and possibly the state supreme court doesn’t take place in a matter of weeks or even months.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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