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Charlotte airport fight still in limbo, years after it began

Attorney Richard Vinroot, left, and former Aviation Director Jerry Orr speak to the media following a hearing at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on August 1, 2013. A judge had blocked the transfer of control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport pending a decision from the FAA about the change.
Attorney Richard Vinroot, left, and former Aviation Director Jerry Orr speak to the media following a hearing at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse on August 1, 2013. A judge had blocked the transfer of control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport pending a decision from the FAA about the change. tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com

More than 2 1/2 years after a fight over control of Charlotte’s airport began, the fight is in seemingly permanent limbo, and the new airport commission’s lawyers still haven’t been paid.

The 13-member commission created by the Republican-dominated state legislature to take control of the airport from the Democratic-dominated Charlotte City Council still exists. But it’s no longer meeting.

The city says it’s still awaiting a decision from the Federal Aviation Administration on which body should run Charlotte Douglas International, while the FAA hasn’t set any time frame for making such a decision.

“We’re just waiting,” said Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann.

“We’re exactly where we’ve been for some time now,” said Robert Stolz, a Charlotte businessman who chairs the commission.

The commission’s lawyers, former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot and Martin Brackett of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, haven’t been paid because the commission has no access to funds. A source with knowledge of the case has told the Observer that the commission’s legal bills have topped $500,000.

Brackett told the Observer that the firm hasn’t finalized any bills and doesn’t plan to seek the funds until there’s some way to pay them.

“They have no funds to pay bills for us, or any other expense for that matter,” Brackett said. “The plan is, if and when the commission is ever in a position where they could pay a bill, we will sit down and talk with them at that point about the time and expenses we have in it, and hopefully reach an agreement with them about what is a reasonable bill.”

“Until they are in that position, it would be premature to present a bill,” Brackett said.

The city of Charlotte also hired outside lawyers to represent it, and those legal bills ran to more than $552,000.

The long-standing impasse between the city and the legislature isn’t having any discernible impact on day-to-day operations at the airport. Brent Cagle is still officially the city’s “interim” aviation director, but he’s held the job for more than two years. In May, he kicked off the airport’s new 10-year, $2.5 billion expansion plan. Cagle replaced former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who departed in 2013 after voicing support for the commission. Orr said he was fired; the city said he resigned.

The airport commission has traveled a strange and twisting path since its inception.

The legislature first raised the idea of creating a new commission to run Charlotte Douglas – an independently funded city department – in early 2013, after some legislators said they were concerned airport funds would be diverted to city projects.

Although the city denied taking any such steps, the legislature voted to create and empower the new commission, with seven members appointed by the city and one each by Mecklenburg and the five surrounding counties.

But the city sued to block the commission, and a judge eventually ruled that the panel can’t run the airport without the FAA’s permission. The commission met for months but was riven by internal divisions. Some members accused the city appointees of sabotaging their efforts to challenge the city and the FAA.

At their last meeting in January, the commission deadlocked on whether to direct its lawyers to respond to the FAA and fight for control of Charlotte Douglas.

In May, members of a separate oversight committee – set up by the legislature to report on the commission – sent a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory and state legislative leaders asking them to change the commission’s makeup to break the city’s majority. However, no new legislation was filed in the General Assembly, which has been consumed with drawn-out negotiations over the budget.

Brackett said he and his fellow attorneys have been in a holding pattern since the commission’s deadlock eight months ago.

“That left us in a position where we’re not authorized by our client to take any action,” he said. “So we’re not taking any action.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

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