The N.C. House on Tuesday approved a Senate measure that proponents hope will end the controversy around who should run Charlotte Douglas International Airport, adding another twist in the battle that’s dragged on for more than a year.
At stake is whether Charlotte City Council or the new Charlotte Airport Commission will run the second-busiest airport in the Southeast. The issue has stoked deep partisan divides within the Mecklenburg delegation and left oversight of Charlotte Douglas in limbo.
Tuesday’s 75-42 vote approved a bill that attempts to clarify Charlotte would still own the airport even if a new, independent commission takes control of its day-to-day operations. But opponents have painted the bill as a “sneak attack” to steal the city’s airport, and the city said it will keep fighting the commission.
Led by Mecklenburg Republicans, the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill in July 2013 to create the 13-member commission. But City Council sued to block it, and the case has been in a stalemate ever since.
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Tuesday’s vote seemed to only reopen last year’s debate. Mecklenburg County’s Democratic delegation predicted the bill would further muddy the conflict.
“It’s an issue that will continue to be sore until the courts put it to bed. Let’s let them decide,” Democrat Becky Carney said during floor debate.
Republican Rep. Ruth Samuelson said the measure only attempted to clarify to the Federal Aviation Administration that Charlotte would continue to own the airport and that the Charlotte Airport Commission would be an agency of the city government, not a special district.
“Why would it make anything worse?” she said after the vote. “This is only about clarifying the language” of the 2013 legislation.
Mayor: This is not the end
Charlotte Mayor Dan Clodfelter asked the the legislature last week to “stand down” and work with him toward a compromise. Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon had been talking with McCrory, but those discussions stalled after Cannon’s March 26 arrest on public corruption charges
In a statement Tuesday, Clodfelter said “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,” he said. “We will continue to reach out to state officials to seek a mutually acceptable resolution of the dispute.”
FAA and court in standoff
Republican lawmakers hope the new bill breaks a standoff between a state court and the FAA.
A state judge has said he needs the federal agency to rule on whether the commission can run the airport before the city’s lawsuit can move forward. Meanwhile, the FAA has refused to rule until someone tells it whether the commission is part of the city government.
The commission is made up of seven members appointed by City Council and the mayor, and six appointed by Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties. Although the commission is formed and meets regularly, it remains blocked from using almost all of its powers.
The bill does not need Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature because it was passed as a local bill, since it impacts fewer than 15 counties. The FAA could issue a ruling on the commission and issue it an airport operating certificate, moving the group a step closer to running Charlotte Douglas.
“I’m anxious to see what the FAA is going to say in response,” Samuelson said after the House vote. “The attorney general has answered the question and now (legislators) have answered the question, so what else does the FAA want?”
A provision in the bill requires Charlotte City Council, the mayor and the city manager to “obtain a determination from the FAA that the Commission may operate the airport” and “secure for the Commission the right and ability to fully exercise the powers granted to it.”
Samuelson said the provision was meant to make sure city officials implement the commission. “When we pass laws, we prefer they be implemented,” she said.
Despite the explicit directive for the city to help the commission, supporters of the bill acknowledge that the city’s court case will likely still have to play out.
Carney said the bill could raise new questions from the FAA or the courts. Democrats in the Mecklenburg delegation weren’t consulted before the measure was filed, she added.
“This is a solution that is searching for a problem,” Democrat Kelly Alexander told his colleagues. “The General Assembly does have the power to be ultimately meddlesome in the affairs of every jurisdiction in the state. It’s a power we do not need to exercise.”