Theres a lot of clutter surrounding the question of who should be in charge at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Some of that is philosophical, such as debate about whether the airport is best served by a regional or city governance. Some of it is personal is Jerry Orr indispensable to the airports success?
Were still waiting on the courts to cut through that clutter and decide if the state has the legal authority to transfer control of Charlotte Douglas to an independent commission. But until that ruling comes, at least one thing remains very clear: Jerry Orr is getting $211,000 annually one of the largest public salaries in the city to run an airport hes not running.
Thats an unnecessary expense. At its meeting tonight, the airport commission should dismiss Orr until the courts provide clarity or the city and state agree to a governance structure.
How did we come to pay so much for so little? When N.C. lawmakers passed a bill this year taking Charlotte Douglas away from the city, they also included language installing Orr as director of the new commission. The city sued, but only to contest the part of the legislation that allowed the commission to take over the airports daily operations. Thats what Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin is mulling now.
What the city didnt contest was the states right to form a commission or name its executive director. Charlotte also decided it would abide by the states mandate that Orr be paid the same serving as the commissions executive director as he had as airport director. Meanwhile, city officials promoted Brent Cagle to airport director because Orr, thanks to the legislation, had a different job. So one airport director, two directors salaries.
The legislation, however, doesnt mandate how long Orr must remain in his new job. The commission can fire him anytime and hire a new director. Or it can fire Orr and hire no director at all. Given that the position currently has no authority over airport operations, thats the most responsible route to take.
Of course, that would leave a long-time successful employee without a paycheck. But thats a risk Orr took when he aligned himself with state lawmakers who wanted to wrest the airport from Charlotte. Its clear that he and city officials disagreed about his autonomy in running the airport, but Orrs solution was to go for broke and change his bosses. The city shouldnt pay for that gamble.
A larger question remains: Is Charlotte Douglas better off with Orr in charge? Orrs supporters argue, rightly, that he has successfully navigated the airport through decades of Charlotte growth. Those supporters include U.S. Airways now American Airlines which hasnt been shy in praising how Orr has run its critical Charlotte hub.
But Orr also has had missteps, and thus far, Cagle has shown himself very capable of living up to his promotion. American Airlines isnt complaining, and so long as Charlotte Douglas continues to keep costs low for carriers, we suspect American will be just fine with whomever is in charge.
For now, thats Cagle and the city. Even if Judge Erwin rules against Charlotte early next year, city officials will appeal to hold onto the airport. That could take more than two years to resolve, city attorney Bob Hagemann told the Observers editorial board Wednesday. The courts would likely keep the current management in place until a final ruling arrives, Hagemann said.
Should that decision eventually validate the states position, the commission can decide to bring Orr back to run Charlotte Douglas. But theres no need to pay for two airport directors until then.
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