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Airport commission faces a decision: Whether to keep Jerry Orr

AirportCommission 1
JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Jerry Orr (right) listens to the proceeding at the Charlotte airport commission meets for the first time. The man behind him on the left is Brent Cagle, once interim director of the airport.

The Charlotte Airport Commission on Thursday faces the most important decision of its brief and tumultuous life: Whether to keep executive director Jerry Orr or fire him, as the legal fight over the airport drags on.

It wasn’t clear Tuesday whether Orr has the votes to keep his job, if the 13-member commission decides to vote on his employment. Of the four commissioners who commented to the Observer, two said they believe Orr should stay, while two said they have serious reservations about keeping him while he is barred from running the airport.

“Why is he still on the payroll?” said commissioner Aaron McKeithan Jr., a retired health care technician and west Charlotte neighborhood leader. “That’s a question I think needs to be answered, one way or another. Everything’s kind of in limbo now. We need some clarity.”

“We’ve got two executive directors, essentially,” said commissioner Anthony Fox, an attorney with Parker Poe. “Is there a way for us to just get down to one?”

The state law creating the commission this summer named Orr its executive director and specified that he continue to receive his $211,000 annual salary. Orr remains blocked from running the airport, which is being overseen by interim aviation director Brent Cagle, a city employee with a $152,640 salary. Both are being paid from airport revenues.

Orr said this week he has discussed his future with commission Chairman Robert Stolz, CEO of Wurth Group North America, but he’s not sure what will happen with his job.

“I don’t know,” said Orr. “I haven’t talked to him since last week. We talked about all aspects of it.”

Stolz declined to go into specifics, but said he’s talked with Orr several times about his job.

“Jerry and I have had several discussions, all very productive, about his future and the future of the airport,” said Stolz. “I look forward to taking those to the commission.”

Commissioner Lanny Lancaster, a Cabarrus County real estate agent, said the airport needs Orr’s expertise, at least until he can put a transition plan in place.

“He’s able to help,” said Lancaster. “I can’t imagine that being a bad thing. The guy just knows the ins and outs.”

The commission will discuss Orr’s future in closed session Thursday evening, and report the results of the discussion afterward. The commission will also discuss how to pay its lawyers, a thorny subject because the group doesn’t have any money to spend.

The Observer reported last week that Charlotte has run up almost $400,000 worth of legal bills for outside lawyers in the commission fight. Although the commission hasn’t disclosed its legal bills, a source with knowledge of the situation said the commission’s bills from former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and other attorneys at Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson are similar in size.

That means the total outside legal bill in the airport fight is probably approaching $1 million.

Bruising fight

The idea of removing control of Charlotte’s airport from the City Council was first raised publicly in January, and the fight over who should run Charlotte Douglas has consumed much of 2013. Now, the fight could stretch well into next year.

At stake is control of the sixth-busiest airport in the world by takeoffs and landings, as well as political capital from Charlotte politicians who have pledged to keep the airport and state politicians who said it must be removed from city control.

Orr, who had run Charlotte Douglas since 1989, lost his city job the day the N.C. General Assembly passed a law creating an airport authority in late July. He and the city couldn’t agree whether he resigned or was fired.

For now, the commission is in limbo, under an injunction from a Superior Court judge and without the Federal Aviation Administration certificate it needs to run the airport. Charlotte Douglas remains an independently funded city department.

The commission got off to a somewhat rocky start at its first meeting in November. Commissioners questioned why they were racking up legal bills while they’re barred from spending money, and some openly wondered what’s the point of meeting while they can’t take many actions.

Commissioners said they also find themselves in an odd position: They’ve been asked to start a board that will run Charlotte Douglas while there’s still a very real possibility they won’t ever get the chance.

Linda Ashendorf, a Charlotte public relations professional, declined to say whether she’s favors keeping Orr.

“I’m normally not a quiet person,” she said, “but this is a very strange situation.”

The commission is made up of seven members appointed by Charlotte City Council and the mayor, as well as one each from Mecklenburg and the five surrounding counties.

The legislature also created an oversight committee to watch over the commission. But it’s not clear at this point what that committee will do. Felix Sabates, a Charlotte car dealer and oversight committee member, criticized the way the airport commission has been run so far.

“I really don’t know what the oversight committee is supposed to do,” said Sabates, who called the situation “comical.” He said that since the oversight committee isn’t allowed in the commission’s closed sessions, they can’t effectively oversee anything. “I wish I’d never taken the appointment.”

“It’s a weird situation,” said Sabates. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Based on the tone of the first meeting, Sabates said he expects the commission to remove Orr.

“I don’t see how Jerry can survive that commission,” he said.

Stolz said he hasn’t spoken with Sabates, but he’s also unsure what the oversight committee is supposed to do.

“I actually have no idea what the goal of the oversight committee is,” said Stolz. “It was a part of the legislation that we as a commission aren’t charged with. And frankly, I’m not sure the oversight committee understands what their goal is either.”

A deal for Orr?

The Charlotte City Council has discussed in closed session a proposal to allow Orr to return to the airport as a consultant for a short period.

In exchange for allowing Orr to return, there would be some concession from advocates of an airport commission. It’s unclear whether that would be an agreement that the commission would vote to dissolve itself – or whether there would be any new legislation from the General Assembly to stop the commission.

Council members have not agreed on any such deal. Stolz declined to comment on the possibility, saying that would be a personnel matter. Gov. Pat McCrory’s office declined to comment.

Orr said he hasn’t been approached by the city but would be open to the idea.

“I spent 38 years at the airport, most of my adult life,” said Orr. “I would certainly be interested in doing what I could to help the airport.”

Observer staff writers Steve Harrison and Jim Morrill contributed

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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