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Charlotte airport panel questions its own existence

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 panel’s 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 don’t 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. He’s a member of a separate airport oversight board created alongside the commission.

“I’ve 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 don’t want to run the airport.

“You could, I guess, decide tomorrow … ‘We don’t want to be a commission,’” Vinroot told them. “One part of the group maybe doesn’t want it. … We’re 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 don’t want to fight for the life of this commission,’” he said.

In the end, the commission didn’t 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 Orr’s future at their next meeting, in 30 to 40 days.

Orr, the city’s former aviation director, said afterward that the 41/2-hour meeting went as well as could be hoped.

“I didn’t have real high expectations,” said Orr. “It’s 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.

“We’ll deal with that next meeting,” he said of Orr’s 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 couldn’t 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 commission’s 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.

‘Can’t oversee anything’

The 13-person commission includes seven members appointed by Charlotte’s 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 hasn’t ruled whether or not the commission is fit to run Charlotte Douglas.

Some commissioners were upset by the meeting’s ambiguous tone and direction.

“I come to a meeting and we’re on trial?” asked Jim Lawton, Iredell County’s appointee. “I’m literally wasting my time. Apparently we’ve got some agendas here.”

“We’ve been established to look over nothing, because we can’t oversee anything,” said insurance executive Cameron Harris.

“We don’t really have a job or a role,” said Pam Syfert, a former Charlotte city manager and commission member.

Stolz’s quip summed up the group’s plight: “We’re 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 he’s 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 airport’s 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.

Money questions

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 commission’s 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 can’t spend money until the judge’s 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 general’s office,” said Anthony Fox, an attorney with Parker Poe. “We have four lawyers here. I know what kind of fees that generates.”

“We don’t have any money, and yet we’re incurring financial liability,” said Syfert. “We’re going to have to ask these questions.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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