Charlotte Airport Battle

Charlotte Airport Commission chairman calls position ‘outrageous’

The chairman of the Charlotte Airport Commission called the group’s legal situation “the worst example of public policy I have seen in my life” Wednesday night, as the deadlocked group was unable to reach a decision on whether to vigorously fight for their own existence in court.

The commission met at the airport, despite still being blocked by a judge from exercising any of its powers to run Charlotte Douglas International. It’s been more than a year since the state legislature created the commission to oversee the airport, intending to take that authority away from the Charlotte City Council. A subsequent lawsuit by the city shows no signs of resolution.

“The position that the city and the state have put this commission into, I believe, is outrageous,” Chairman Robert Stolz said. “We’re still stuck in the mud. Maybe worse, we’re stuck in the middle of a battlefield in what I would consider to be no man’s land, shooting all around us.”

Stolz said costs are mounting on all sides, as more than a year’s worth of legal bills for the city, state and commission pile up. He didn’t say how much the commission’s legal tab is so far, and it wasn’t clear how the commission will pay because it doesn’t have access to money.

“The bills continue to rise at a degree I can only imagine,” Stolz said. “The people involved in these lawsuits have no skin in the game.”

The N.C. General Assembly created the commission in July 2013, over strong objections from Democratic lawmakers and city politicians. Supporters said it would free the commission from meddling by local politicians, while opponents said it was a power grab.

The city sued to stop the commission and a judge issued a temporary order blocking it from using any of its powers. Now, the case is tied up in state court. The Federal Aviation Administration – which also must approve the commission – hasn’t said when it will decide whether the City Council or the commission should run the airport.

For now, the airport remains an independently funded city department.

Ten members of the 13-member commission were present Wednesday and they split evenly on two votes. One group, led by Gaston commissioner Joe Carpenter, offered a motion to direct the group’s lawyer, Martin Brackett, to file a brief stating that they are the legal airport commission. That failed in a 5-5 tie.

The other faction, led by Stolz and commissioner Anthony Fox and made up of commissioners appointed by Charlotte, supported a motion to direct Brackett to tell the judge that the commission wasn’t taking any stance on the legal issues. That also failed in a tie vote.

Brackett said that as a result he will not file any briefs in the case on the commission’s behalf. The judge has requested briefs from all sides in the case by Monday.

That means the only group arguing on the commission’s behalf in the court case will be the N.C. Attorney General’s Office.

Carpenter said he was trying to move the commission’s case forward with his motion.

“We’ve been in this nearly a year and it’s just keeping us in limbo,” Carpenter said after the meeting. “I was trying to be a part of moving this situation forward.”

After the meeting, Stolz was asked whether the commission is still a viable body to one day run Charlotte’s airport. He said he thinks the group can pull together and run Charlotte Douglas if it wins the right to do so. But he made it clear he doesn’t intend to push vigorously for the commission in its lawsuit.

“It’s up to the courts,” Stolz said. “This issue is between the city and the state.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who opposed a new commission when he was Charlotte mayor, called the situation “an unnecessary mess” in a recent interview. But he didn’t give a timeline for when the FAA might decide and said he thought the issue should be decided locally.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer