When Dan Clodfelter is sworn in as Charlotte’s new mayor Wednesday, one of the most pressing issues he’ll face is one he’s familiar with from both his time in the state legislature and his work on a similar lawsuit: the question of who should run Charlotte’s airport.
The controversial issue is still in limbo, more than a year after legislators started talking about removing control of the airport from the Charlotte City Council. A new, regional commission was created by the state legislature but remains blocked from using its powers while a lawsuit wends its way through court.
For now, City Council remains in control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Clodfelter’s history suggests he will be a mayor staunchly in support of keeping things that way.
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“I, of course, did not agree with the actions of the legislature,” Clodfelter, a Democrat, said after he was appointed Monday. “What I would hope is that maybe, after a year, maybe we can back away from that, have some dialogue with our legislators and get them to understand why this is not good for North Carolina.”
The legislature reconvenes May 14 for its short session. Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon – who resigned after being arrested on corruption charges last month – had been leading efforts with Gov. Pat McCrory to reach a compromise on the airport battle.
Clodfelter didn’t return messages Tuesday. Neither did McCrory spokesman Josh Ellis.
State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg County Republican, said he’d be open to talking with Clodfelter but remains convinced an independent commission needs to run the airport.
“I would hope that he would understand, especially with the recent occurrences, that the airport would be better managed under the commission,” said Rucho, referring to Cannon’s arrest. Leaving the airport in Charlotte’s hands would leave it vulnerable to “politics and cronyism,” Rucho said.
State Sen. Malcolm Graham said he thought the race of former Mayor Anthony Foxx, who led the city when the push for an airport authority started, had played a role. “It was because of the color of the mayor’s skin,” Graham told the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, a largely African-American group.
Asked to elaborate, Graham said later that “race was a factor in this whole thing.”
Rucho called that assertion “totally absurd.”
“It was never, ever, ever about race,” Rucho said. “It was strictly about business.”
Clodfelter, a legislator since 1998, was steadfastly opposed to Republican legislators from Mecklenburg who wanted to transfer control of the airport to a new commission.
A lawyer with Moore & Van Allen, Clodfelter has also represented Asheville in that city’s fight to block a bill the legislature passed to transfer control of that city’s water system to a new, regional power. The case has some similarities to Charlotte’s airport situation, and Clodfelter helped the city secure a judge’s order blocking the state’s actions.
“The General Assembly’s power over local government is not unlimited,” Clodfelter said last year.
In an August forum hosted by the Observer and PNC Bank, Clodfelter explained why he felt so strongly that the airport should remain under Charlotte’s leadership.
Clodfelter said the airport bill was unconstitutional because it was passed as a so-called local act. That’s a term for a bill that affects fewer than 15 counties. Such bills don’t need the governor’s signature and aren’t eligible for a veto. Clodfelter argued that the state constitution says that bills affecting airports and seaports can’t be passed under the local bill method, however.
“What right does the General Assembly of North Carolina have to make this change in the first place?” Clodfelter asked. “It’s answered by the constitution ... It says in black and white.”
“(The General Assembly) cannot single out one airport,” said Clodfelter. “That was completely ignored throughout this whole process.”
That claim was one of the city’s arguments in a lawsuit meant to block the legislation. But Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin dismissed the constitutional claim in a November hearing, while leaving in place an injunction barring the new commission from running Charlotte Douglas.
Where the airport fight heads from here is unclear, even though it has dragged on since early 2013.
Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said Tuesday that there are no hearings scheduled in the city’s lawsuit against the state.
Ervin has said that he wants the Federal Aviation Administration to decide, and issue a ruling as to whether the commission should run the airport.
Robert Stolz, a local executive who has been named chairman of the 13-member commission, sent the FAA a letter in February asking it to rule on the question. But he said he has yet to receive a reply.
The commission still plans to hold a meeting later this month.
“I look forward to working with him to find the right solution for our wonderful airport,” Stolz said of Clodfelter.
Observer staff writer Jim Morrill contributed.