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Legal fight over Charlotte Douglas airport to continue after new bill passed

A year ago, Charlotte lawyers asked a judge for an injunction within minutes of the General Assembly passing a bill that transferred control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from City Council to a new commission.

When legislators passed another airport bill Tuesday, the city did not race to the courthouse to stop it.

The city apparently believes that the injunction it received in July still prohibits the commission from getting the keys to the airport. It’s unclear whether the city plans additional legal challenges to the law.

“We are analyzing the new legislation to determine what, if anything, it does to our previous legal position and strategy and will adapt accordingly,” City Attorney Bob Hagemann said in a statement Wednesday.

Meanwhile, proponents of the commission say they will press the Federal Aviation Administration to resolve the question of who should run Charlotte Douglas. The FAA said last year’s legislative move failed to clarify who owned the airport and whether the commission was an agency of city government or a separate entity.

The issue has festered for more than a year, with the new commission blocked from taking charge of the airport while the city’s legal challenge sits in court.

The new bill, passed Tuesday, clarifies that the airport commission is an agency of city government. But it removes the City Council and city manager from direct oversight of Charlotte Douglas.

Republican legislators hope the new airport bill will force the FAA to issue a ruling on the new commission.

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, R-N.C., said he plans to press the FAA for a decision on the commission for the third time. In May, he demanded the FAA stop playing “ hot potato” with Charlotte Douglas and make a decision.

On Tuesday, Pittenger’s office said he is drafting a letter asking the FAA to render a decision in light of the new legislation. He plans to ask the other members of the Charlotte-area congressional delegation to sign the letter and send it Thursday.

Commission member Lanny Lancaster, Cabarrus County’s representative, said he hopes the new law will prod the FAA to act.

“I think it’s been delayed long enough, and hopefully this is a way to break the ice,” said Lancaster, a real estate agent and airplane appraiser. “We’re just kind of in limbo and a decision needs to be made.”

The chairman of the 13-member commission, Wurth Group North America CEO Robert Stolz, echoed Lancaster’s hope for a resolution.

“We’re just waiting for a decision one way or another,” said Stolz. The commission has been meeting regularly since it was created, even though it can’t exercise its powers while it remains under an injunction. Stolz said the commission is ready to assume responsibility for overseeing the airport.

For now, the airport remains an independently funded city department, with interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle reporting to City Manager Ron Carlee. The airport is ultimately overseen by the City Council.

Under the new governance structure, Cagle – who is also the commission’s interim executive director – would report to the commissioners. Seven of them were appointed by the City Council and the mayor, and six were appointed by Mecklenburg County and the surrounding counties.

Republican legislators created the commission last year to insulate Charlotte Douglas from what they said was political meddling. City officials said the move was a power grab by the General Assembly.

But the issue of who should run Charlotte Douglas had been on the back burner for the City Council this year, after a long lull in the fight, with officials meeting only once in closed session about the airport. Council members discussed the airport legislation again behind closed doors Monday.

The new bill attempts to prod the city into asking the FAA to give the commission an operating certificate.

The bill calls for the City Council, the city manager and the mayor to “secure for the commission the right and ability to fully exercise the powers granted to it” and get the FAA’s permission to operate Charlotte Douglas.

But it’s unclear how much the city will be forced to comply with the directive in the bill – or whether the City Council would ignore it completely.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Republican and one of the bill’s main backers, said during floor debate Tuesday in the N.C. House that the provision was meant to ensure the city takes steps to implement the commission.

“When we pass laws, we prefer they be implemented,” she said.

Hagemann declined to comment about the city’s plans for that section of the bill.

City Manager Ron Carlee referred questions about the airport bill to a statement made by Mayor Dan Clodfelter.

“The proponents of the bill say that it merely clarifies the intent of last year’s legislation,” Clodfelter said. “At this point the City’s legal team is still assessing whether the bill clarifies anything or whether it instead introduces new legal issues. In any event, this new legislation is not the end of the matter and does not address our concerns. We will continue to reach out to state officials to seek a mutually acceptable resolution of the dispute.”

FAA spokesperson Marcia Alexander-Adams said that the FAA will review the new law when it receives a copy from city or state officials.

Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan said, “We continue to implore the city and state to get it out of the courts, come together, and fix it.” Eric Frazier contributed to this story.

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