US Airways called it "disappointing." House Speaker Thom Tillis called it "incredibly irresponsible" and "unwise." But Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee says his decision to install a new director of the Charlotte Airport was "simply business."
On Thursday afternoon, long-time aviation director Jerry Orr sent a memo to his boss, City Manager Ron Carlee, basically saying, Hey, now that lawmakers have created this airport authority and made me the director, here are a few things we'll need to work together on . . . and oh, by the way, this means my employment with the city is "terminated."
Carlee seized on that line as a resignation, which he promptly accepted. Orr's attorney says that wasn't the aviation director's intent. Either way, Orr's out of a job because a judge has put the airport authority transition on hold pending a lawsuit from the city.
"There's nothing personal about any of this from my perspective," says City Manager Ron Carlee. "This is simply business. He's in one place as the authority director. We're in another place with the operation of the city and I expect everybody to go forward in a professional and constructive manner."
ROSE: But you could have - I guess - not accepted it, or said, "Well hang on, the airport authority is not official yet, we're working through this in the courts, business as usual." Keep him on.
CARLEE: "Mr. Orr was represented by counsel and represented himself as executive director of the airport authority. I think he was very clear in that in all of his representations yesterday. As such we need to have a city employee that's actually providing continuity to the airport, thus I appointed Jerry's – what is really his number two person – Brent Cagle – to provide that during this interim period."
ROSE: The subtext is that Orr had clearly aligned himself with the airport authority side of this issue, and now that the city is fighting the airport authority in court, it just wouldn't do to have Orr running the airport for the city. But Orr's been pro-airport authority all along. Why not get rid of him sooner?
CARLEE: "I probably have had more external advice on what I should or shouldn't do with regard to Mr. Orr than all the employees I have supervised in my 35 years in executive management and local government. At end of the day my responsibility as a professional manager is to engage with staff in a professional manner and try to ensure the services of the city are conducted in a professional manner. And that is the way in which Mr. Orr and I have conducted ourselves jointly. If the airport authority becomes reality at some point in the future and Mr. Orr becomes executive director of the airport authority, then I will work with Mr. Orr as executive director of the airport authority. The one thing the city will not do, is, in any way, act in a manner that will disadvantage the airport or in any way put ourselves at risk of maintaining the best airport that we can."
ROSE: You say this is a business decision and you talk about wanting to maintain the stability of the airport, but you could also look at this and say, "Removing the long-time director of the aviation department at a juncture like this only makes things more unstable for the employees out there and the customers who have a relationship with him."
CARLEE: "I recognize and appreciate what he has produced at the airport in creating a highly successful airport, although I think it would be an overstatement to say the airport is what it is only because of one person. There's an excellent leadership team that jerry has developed, so I tried to turn to the person I think jerry had the most confidence in to provide the continuity. I have also authorized Brent very explicitly that if he needs to consult with Jerry, he's free to do so on operational issues. And so, I'm very confident that the team Jerry built is very capable in continuing operations seamlessly for the traveling public and for the airlines and our contractors and vendors at the airport."
Carlee says he won't start looking for Orr's permanent replacement until the court resolves whether or not the airport can be transferred to a regional authority.
As interim aviation director, Cagle receive a 20 percent salary increase. He's now making $156,000. Orr was making $211,000. Cagle has led the Charlotte airport's finance team for just over one year. Before that, he was a Deputy Aviation Director at Sky Harbor International Airport, which is operated by the city of Phoenix.
Meantime, the communications staff for the city of Charlotte confirms it's considering hiring an outside PR firm to handle – or maybe a better phrase would be "get under control" – this airport controversy that shows no sign of winding down.