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Charlotte Douglas airport bill clears Senate, on to House

A new bill that could end the controversy surrounding who will run Charlotte Douglas International Airport passed the North Carolina Senate on Wednesday and moved to the state House for final approval.

Supporters say the bill will bring clarity to a dispute that has festered for more than a year. Opponents called it a “sneak attack” to steal Charlotte Douglas from the city’s oversight.

For months, the Federal Aviation Administration, the city, the new airport commission created last year and a North Carolina Superior Court judge have been locked in a standoff.

The FAA said it needs to know whether the commission is part of the city government or a separate entity before it will decide whether to let the commission run the airport. At the same time, a judge has said he needs the FAA to make a decision before moving forward in the city’s lawsuit to block the commission.

The new bill aims to resolve that issue by definitively stating the airport commission is an agency of the city government. That could help force the FAA to decide, and move the commission one step closer to running the airport.

“Once answered, the FAA can make their decision, one way or the other, and the judge can resolve the lawsuit,” state Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg County, said Wednesday.

In one of the more controversial sections, the bill 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.

Rucho assured the Senate that this was not redebating the issue but simply answering the FAA’s questions. “What we’re trying to do is find a point of closure in this case so that we can end the discord and move forward.”

“All this does is show that the city of Charlotte owns the airport,” he said.

But Democratic Sens. Malcolm Graham and Jeff Jackson said that wasn’t true. They said the bill attempts to subvert the lawsuit and circumvent city officials, including Mayor Dan Clodfelter, who was a state senator until his recent mayoral appointment.

“You have a good-faith partner in Mayor Clodfelter,” Jackson said. “He’s ready to work. Let’s work with him.”

Graham read a letter from Clodfelter asking the General Assembly to “stand down.”

“This is a local issue that should be decided by the local people in Charlotte,” Graham said. He said local bills taken up in legislative short sessions are supposed to be noncontroversial. “This piece of legislation right from the takeoff never had everyone aboard,” he said. “Since its departure it has experienced turbulence every step of the way.”

Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat, challenged the process. “This is the definition of controversial,” he said.

The Senate moved ahead, and the bill passed 31-18.

Although the legislature created the commission in July to run the airport instead of City Council, the commission remains barred from exercising any power. The city sued, and a judge issued an injunction blocking the group.

Despite the injunction, the commission has continued to meet monthly for informational sessions. The court case has languished, with no hearings scheduled.

Robert Stolz, chairman of the 13-member Charlotte Airport Commission, could not be reached Wednesday.

When lawmakers created the commission last year, Republicans from Mecklenburg led the charge. They said the measure was needed to protect Charlotte Douglas from political meddling by the City Council.

Officials in Charlotte, however, said the state was overreaching and called the move a power grab and an infringement on local government.

The commission has seven members appointed by City Council and Charlotte’s mayor, and six appointed by Mecklenburg and the five surrounding counties.

In a sign of how tangled the situation has become, Brent Cagle is both interim executive director of the commission and interim aviation director for the city. For now, the airport remains an independently funded city department, reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee and the council.

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