Longtime Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr said Thursday that he will retire as executive director of the new Charlotte Airport Commission effective Dec. 31, ending his push to come back and run the airport he spent almost four decades helping to build.
Orr lost his city job this summer during a battle over control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. At the second-ever meeting, the commission named interim Charlotte Aviation Director Brent Cagle, who is currently in charge of the airport, as the commission’s interim executive director.
The commission’s move puts Cagle, who remains a city employee who reports to the city manager, in the executive director role at the airport commission, which was supposed to be a body to free the airport from the city’s alleged meddling.
Robert Stolz, chairman of the airport commission, said he believes it’s time for the group to act as a broker between the city and the state in the fight over Charlotte’s airport. He outlined what he thinks should happen next in the fight, which has gone on for almost a year.
“The city and the state come together, put together some type of settlement. They present that to the legislature,” Stolz said. He said the commission would schedule its next meeting soon, and would “keep pressure on both sides” to reach a negotiated resolution.
Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said in a statement Thursday night that all sides in the airport fight need to reach a reconciliation.
“Now is the time to continue our work with the Governor, General Assembly, business community, and our airport partners toward a permanent solution,” he said.
The fight over who should run Charlotte Douglas first publicly surfaced in January. Republican state legislators from Mecklenburg led the push to move control of the airport from the Charlotte City Council – which ran Charlotte Douglas since 1935 – to an independent, regional board.
The city fought the move, and the resulting rift burned bridges between Charlotte and the state legislature in Raleigh, as well as between political factions in Charlotte. Along the way, Orr, who worked at the airport for nearly 40 years and ran it since 1989, lost his job, the fight ended up in court and Charlotte’s airport was left in limbo.
The Republican legislators, led by state Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, said they had to protect the airport from the City Council’s politics and desire to illegally divert airport funds. City Council members countered that they weren’t trying to divert airport funds, and said they had been forced to put more stringent controls on the airport because of mistakes with money and security lapses under Orr.
Orr, 72, lost his job as Charlotte’s aviation director July 18, when the legislature passed a law removing control of the airport from the City Council. He and City Manager Ron Carlee couldn’t agree whether he resigned or was fired.
But the law specified Orr automatically be named executive director of the Charlotte Airport Commission, and that he continue to receive the $211,000 salary he was earning as aviation director. Orr’s salary is paid from airport funds.
End of Orr’s era
Orr’s retirement spells the official end of his long involvement with Charlotte Douglas, which spanned “most of my adult life,” as Orr said earlier this week. Stolz said Orr submitted his retirement letter earlier this week.
“I absolutely believe that management and governance of (Charlotte Douglas) by this new independent commission is the right approach,” Orr said Thursday, reading a statement after his retirement was announced. He called for the city to transfer the power to run the airport to the commission quickly to help end “this unfortunate dispute.”
A Charlotte native, Orr was running his family’s land surveying company until he came to work for the airport under former Aviation Director Josh Birmingham in 1975. When Birmingham retired in 1989, Orr was named to the top post at the airport.
That same year, Charlotte’s major carrier, Piedmont Airlines, merged with USAir. Orr shepherded Charlotte Douglas through decades of growth, as the airport expanded from a regional hub into US Airways’ busiest hub, as well as the sixth-busiest airport in the world by takeoffs and landings. The airport is now the second-busiest hub of the new American Airlines, the largest airline in the world.
“I’m extremely proud of all that I and the other wonderful people I’ve been fortunate to work with there have been able to accomplish,” Orr said.
Orr also said he would be glad to assist the commission in the future. After reading his statement, Orr turned from the microphones and television cameras, said “Adios,” and walked away with his attorney.
Stolz praised Orr, who received a round of applause.
“Let me also be very clear: Jerry Orr built this airport,” Stolz said.
Gov. Pat McCrory posted a message to Orr on his Facebook account. “I enjoyed working with you during my 14 years as Mayor of Charlotte and you are a true class act. I am confident that the Charlotte Airport has a great future ahead,” McCrory wrote.
For now, the airport remains an independently funded city department that reports to the City Council.
The commission is under an injunction from a Superior Court judge that blocks the group from running the airport or spending money. The commission also doesn’t have the Federal Aviation Administration certificate it needs to run the airport. Stolz didn’t say whether the commission would search for a permanent executive director.
While the commission remains legally barred from operating the airport, Orr’s continued pay was a source of consternation, with some on the airport commission calling it wasteful spending. Charlotte interim Aviation Director Cagle is running the airport. His $152,640 salary is also paid with airport revenues.
During Thursday’s meeting, Orr sat with his arms folded in the chairs behind the commissioner’s table, among the other city staff. He listened as Cagle gave the commission an update on parking deck construction, the airport’s new entrance road and the new rail cargo yard at the airport.
The 13-member commission is made up of seven people appointed by the Charlotte City Council and the mayor, and one each appointed by Mecklenburg and five surrounding counties.
Also Thursday, the commission was set to consider the question of how to pay its lawyers. Orr hired former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and his partner Martin Brackett, both with Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, to represent the commission before the commission was actually seated.
Vinroot was not present Thursday, though Brackett gave a brief presentation outlining the status of the airport commission’s legal case.
Stolz said the commission’s legal bills have not been finalized, and declined to say Thursday what they might total. But a source with knowledge of the situation said the commission’s bill is similar to that of the city, which has spent almost $400,000 on outside counsel so far.
‘He beat them to the punch’
Also at issue Thursday was the role of a separate oversight committee created by the legislature to report on the airport commission. The five-member oversight committee hasn’t met yet, and member Felix Sabates said this week he’s not sure what they’re supposed to do.
At the airport commission’s first meeting in November, Sabates and other oversight committee members weren’t allowed in the commission’s closed session. Thursday, Sabates’ attorney sent Mayor Patrick Cannon a letter asking for his guarantee that he would be allowed into the closed session. If he couldn’t get into the meeting, Sabates said he would resign.
“If that presents a problem, please let (Sabates) know before the meeting, so that he won’t be wasting his time,” wrote Charlotte attorney Bill Diehl. “How are they supposed to oversee the Commission, when they can’t attend critical meetings? What’s the point of the committee?”
Sabates was allowed to attend the closed session, but was the only member of the oversight committee present. After the meeting, Sabates praised the group, and said he had apologized for his previous criticisms.
“I was so surprised today,” said Sabates. “It really was positive,” he said of the commission’s attitude during closed session.
Sabates had previously said he expected the commission to fire Orr. But Thursday, he said Orr had out-maneuvered the commission: “Jerry did not get fired. He beat them to the punch.”
Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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