With a round of introductions and an oath of office, the 13-member Charlotte Douglas International Airport Commission officially came into being Thursday and immediately faced questions about whether their own members are opposed to the panels existence.
Commission members and their attorneys called their situation odd and convoluted. They questioned whether their lawyers, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and his partners, are needed, and whether the commission has any money to spend. They also asked whether Executive Director Jerry Orr should keep his job.
Felix Sabates told the members he believes some on the board dont want it around.
We have the commission being sworn in tonight, but I have some reservations on how united or disunited this commission is, said Sabates, a car dealer. Hes a member of a separate airport oversight board created alongside the commission.
Ive had conversations with members tonight who are dead against this commission. How does that work? Sabates asked.
Vinroot told commission members several times they could decide to lay down your arms if they dont want to run the airport.
You could, I guess, decide tomorrow We dont want to be a commission, Vinroot told them. One part of the group maybe doesnt want it. Were just going to do our best to get you off the ground. You can go where you want after that.
Your commission can decide, We dont want to fight for the life of this commission, he said.
In the end, the commission didnt dissolve itself or fire Orr. But it did decide to direct Vinroot to stop much of his legal work representing the commission in court. They told Vinroot to only deal with the Federal Aviation Administration, not the legal fight with Charlotte. The commission also asked for a legal bill for services thus far.
And they decided to consider Orrs future at their next meeting, in 30 to 40 days.
Orr, the citys former aviation director, said afterward that the 41/2-hour meeting went as well as could be hoped.
I didnt have real high expectations, said Orr. Its a totally new group of people trying to get started.
I have no idea, Orr said when asked whether he thought the commission would keep him.
Robert Stolz, former chairman of the N.C. Chamber of Commerce and chief executive of Wurth Group North America, was elected chairman of the airport commission.
Well deal with that next meeting, he said of Orrs future. We would like to spend a considerable amount of time to review what the executive director has done in the past and what the future looks like.
Orr lost his city job in July, after the N.C. General Assembly passed a law transferring control of the airport from City Council to a new, independent authority. Orr and his former bosses couldnt agree on whether he resigned or retired.
He still receives his $211,000 salary, paid with airport revenue, because the law specified that he become the commissions initial executive director. If the commission wins its legal battle to run the airport, Orr would return to his old job overseeing Charlotte Douglas.
For now, the airport is still an independently funded city department, overseen by interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle.
Cant oversee anything
The 13-person commission includes seven members appointed by Charlottes mayor and City Council, and one each by the county commissions in Mecklenburg and Gaston, Lincoln, Iredell, Cabarrus and Union counties.
The city sued to block the commission after the legislature passed a bill removing airport control from city council in July. A judge issued an injunction blocking the commission from exercising its powers, and the FAA hasnt ruled whether or not the commission is fit to run Charlotte Douglas.
Some commissioners were upset by the meetings ambiguous tone and direction.
I come to a meeting and were on trial? asked Jim Lawton, Iredell Countys appointee. Im literally wasting my time. Apparently weve got some agendas here.
Weve been established to look over nothing, because we cant oversee anything, said insurance executive Cameron Harris.
We dont really have a job or a role, said Pam Syfert, a former Charlotte city manager and commission member.
Stolzs quip summed up the groups plight: Were a commission without a country.
Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee told the commission the city will continue its fight.
If in fact the city prevails in its litigation, as we expect, it will be as if this commission never existed, Carlee said. He said the city would work with the commission if the commission wins but cautioned that would take months, at least.
Orr told the commission hes intent on making sure Charlotte Douglas pursues a strategy of smart growth to avoid running up costs.
Build it and they will come does not work, Orr said. We are not too big to fail.
But after his presentation, Syfert questioned whether Orr is still up-to-date on the airports infrastructure projects more than three months after leaving his job.
I wonder if this commission needs to have an update from the city as to what is the current status, she said.
Some of the commission meeting was routine for a first gathering of a government body, with the commissioners taking oaths of office and introducing themselves to each other. Many of the commissions questions centered around money.
Does the commission have any money? asked Aaron McKeithan, a retired technician from the health care industry and west Charlotte neighborhood leader.
Technically, no. We have not been paid, said Martin Brackett, an attorney representing the commission along with Vinroot at Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson.
So who pays you? asked McKeithan.
You, we hope, said Brackett. The commission cant spend money until the judges order is lifted.
Some of the commission members questioned whether they should rack up legal bills they might not be able to pay.
It seems to me that the interests of the commission are adequately represented by the attorney generals office, said Anthony Fox, an attorney with Parker Poe. We have four lawyers here. I know what kind of fees that generates.
We dont have any money, and yet were incurring financial liability, said Syfert. Were going to have to ask these questions.
Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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