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Critic calls GOP-backed Charlotte airport bill ‘sneak attack’

By Jim Morrill, Ely Portillo and Ann Doss Helms
jmorrill@charlotteobserver.com elyportillo@charlotteobserver.com
MEMORIAL_DAY_TRAVEL
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Long lines greet travelers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

After what one lawmaker called “a sneak attack,” an N.C. Senate panel Tuesday passed a bill that critics say could end the city’s legal challenge over Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

The bill, which just became public Tuesday morning, took Charlotte officials by surprise and rekindles the fight over airport control that began last year.

“This is a sneak attack to take the airport,” said Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat. “What it does is settle the question of who will operate the airport. And it settles it in favor of the state.”

The bill is backed by Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Ruth Samuelson, both Mecklenburg Republicans. They led last year’s push that first put the airport in the hands of an independent authority and then a commission.

The city took the state to court in July. A judge issued an injunction forbidding the commission from exercising most of its powers. All that has left the matter in a legal and administrative limbo as both sides await a ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Though the commission was created last summer, it remains barred from actually running Charlotte Douglas. If that’s resolved and the FAA gave the commission the go-ahead, the new commission would be one step closer to running the airport instead of the City Council.

A spokeswoman for the FAA said Tuesday that the agency hadn’t heard about or been advised of the bill.

Separate or part of the city?

The new bill would establish that the 13-member commission is an agency within the city government. That would resolve one of the major outstanding disputes: The FAA has said that it won’t say whether the new commission can run the airport without knowing whether the commission is an agency of the city.

Supporters said the new bill simply clarifies that.

“All of this is about getting it out of court, whichever way they decide,” Samuelson told the Finance Committee. “If the hangup is the language on who owns it, I thought it made perfect sense to clarify who owns it.”

But critics said it goes further.

“That is a clever distraction from the real purpose of the bill,” Jackson said, “which is to settle the only question that matters, which isn’t who owns the property but who runs the show.”

Critics also objected because they said the measure came as a surprise.

“The airport and the community all are better served if we can first find a resolution of this dispute among interests here in Charlotte and then decide how to put that solution into legislation,” Mayor Dan Clodfelter said in a statement. “I would ask that the General Assembly stand down from this new legislative proposal while local discussions in Charlotte continue.”

Samuelson said the legislature didn’t talk with the city while crafting the bill, because it was meant to address the FAA’s questions, not Charlotte’s issues.

“It didn’t occur to me to ask the city to answer the questions the FAA asked us,” she said, adding that there has been no dialogue between the city and the legislature about the airport since former Mayor Patrick Cannon’s March 26 arrest.

Partisan divisions split Meck delegation

The Finance Committee, which Rucho chairs, passed the bill after a short, contentious hearing.

One provision that drew pointed opposition is a section in the bill that says the city would have to “obtain a determination from the FAA that the Commission may operate the airport” under the existing operating certificate or under a new certificate.

“This section forces the city to stop that (legal) fight and says even if the city wins they’ll still lose,” Jackson said.

Samuelson said that wasn’t the case, and the bill only directed the city to follow the law and give the FAA information it needs.

“We passed a law that the city in my view should have complied with. They chose to go to court,” she said.

Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat, objected to that language and asked that it be taken out of the bill. Rucho retorted that the language was simply in response to a letter from the FAA outlining its concerns.

“If you can’t read the letter from the FAA, you explained your own problem,” Rucho said.

Samuelson acknowledged the city’s legal challenge will likely still have to play out in court before the commission controversy is fully resolved.

While the court case languished, the City Council and the mayor appointed seven members. Mecklenburg and the other surrounding counties appointed the remaining six. The commission has met monthly, but it has not conducted any business except for handling the retirement of former Executive Director Jerry Orr.

Ford and fellow Charlotte Democrat Malcolm Graham said the unexpected introduction of the bill shows the depth of partisan rifts among those who represent Mecklenburg County.

“It shows how much respect they have for the new mayor of Charlotte: They don’t,” Ford said. “All he asked for is a little bit more time.”

Graham, chair of the Mecklenburg delegation, said Samuelson manipulated Senate rules to introduce a short-session bill without the support of the full delegation.

“While it doesn’t break the rules, it breaks the spirit of the rules,” he said. “As chairman of the delegation I had no idea, no clue. The city had no clue. That’s not the way to create positive public policy.”

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