RALEIGH The North Carolina legislature, plowing into the wee hours and past the objections of Democrats, gave final approval early Friday to a measure creating a Charlotte airport commission.
City officials vowed to block the measure, which creates a 13-member commission to operate Charlotte Douglas International Airport but leaves the property in Charlotte’s ownership. The legislation is also poised to restore longtime Aviation Director Jerry Orr to his position, only a week after he was removed by the city.
The N.C. House passed the bill on final reading at 12:15 a.m. Friday on a 67-40 vote. The vote followed a 10-minute pause to recess just before midnight and reconvene, meeting requirements that second and third readings fall on separate days. Legislators hope to wrap up their session Friday.
The Senate followed with a 27-14 vote to concur, and passed the bill at 1:26 a.m.
The measure’s passage in the House followed an impassioned plea by a weary-sounding Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, who predicted its passage would raise constitutional challenges.
“Our constitution says you cannot write laws to benefit one citizen, and that’s what this bill does, give one citizen his job back,” Carney said, referring to ousted airport aviation director Orr. The measure guarantees Orr his job back because of the way it defines the new director’s job description.
Carney complained that city officials had not had time to adequately review a measure that had emerged only Thursday morning.
Rep. Kelly Alexander, D-Mecklenburg, predicted to House colleagues that the measure would among the first of more legislative takings of municipal property.
“It’s (Charlotte) tonight. It’s going to be one of you next week, or in six months,” he said. “It might not be your airport or directing you to hire Joe Schmoe, but directing you to extend your water and sewer system to heck and back. Then I’ll have the pleasure 20 years from now of sitting here and watching you turn slowly in the wind.”
The airport commission fight left Mecklenburg delegation members on both sides drained and frustrated. One representative from the delegation said “bridges are being burned that might never get rebuilt.”
Rep. Bill Brawley, R-Mecklenburg, a commission supporter, said he was skeptical Wednesday night that a compromise would be reached with the city, when he first heard a deal might be in the works. He said he thought the bill was dead after Rep. Ruth Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, pulled the bill from a Thursday morning Senate rules meeting – only to resurrect it two hours later.
“There’s a lot of anger and frustration on every side,” Brawley said. “The city of Charlotte has never wanted to do anything other than tell us to go away.”
Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg, said the city proved its inability to manage the airport by firing Orr.
“The city opted to fire the only person who knows how to run the airport with authority, and now it’s floundering,” Rucho said on the Senate floor.
After the bill passed the Senate, Rucho said it would protect Charlotte Douglas by restoring Orr. He said City Manager Ron Carlee “knows nothing about Charlotte, knows nothing about airports.”
“You can’t run that airport without (Orr) right now, because there’s nobody there that can really manage it,” said Rucho. “There’s not one person in the city, whether it’s city manager, staff or council members that knows a thing about airport operations. Why should they even be sticking their noses into it?”
Sen. Malcolm Graham, D-Mecklenburg, had another prediction: “More deception, more chaos, more confusion, more uncertainty, more litigation. For what and for who?” he told the Senate. “Why do we want to pit the largest city in the state against the state of North Carolina?”
Democratic legislators were frustrated with what they saw as a last-minute bill rammed through with little debate.
“This bill is just an extension of the legislature trying to snatch power from the city,” said Rep. Rodney Moore, D-Mecklenburg, after the House vote.
“I think it was a grand scheme,” he said. “I still have a little heartburn that there are people from other counties who are going to be at the table who don’t have skin in the game when it comes to assets.”
A rollercoaster day
The political wrangling started late Wednesday with a new proposal from Republican legislators, and continued Thursday, highlighting a bitter rift among members of the Mecklenburg County delegation. Thursday’s twists, part of a six-month turf war, came after the General Assembly passed legislation last week to transfer Charlotte Douglas International Airport to a new independent authority, a move that was quickly blocked when the city asked a judge for a restraining order.
Samuelsonsaid the new bill would head off the city’s lawsuit, which was filed to block an airport authority. But city officials said they planned new challenges.
Samuelson acknowledged there might be a new lawsuit but said she has no doubt the state will prevail.
“They will try to sue, and we will win,” she said.
Samuelson said the legislation was driven by Orr’s unexpected ouster after the General Assembly passed last week’s authority bill.
The rapid-fire maneuvering of the bill – originally promoted as a compromise – left Democratic members of Mecklenburg’s commission furious. Carney said she was “livid” about the new legislation.
Only hours before its tentative passage in the House, Samuelson had angrily pulled the bill from a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee after learning that the city did not support the bill.
“We’re going to run (the bill) anyway,” said Samuelson at a second committee meeting, after deciding to move forward. “I hope that one day the city of Charlotte will acknowledge that this was a good deal.”
Senate Bill 380 – which originally concerned landfill permit fees, before the bill’s text was replaced Thursday – passed the Senate Rules Committee after a brief discussion and a voice vote. Democrats from Mecklenburg weren’t allowed to speak on the bill before the vote.
Later, the bill received tentative approval from the House in a Thursday afternoon vote, passing 70-42, largely along party lines. Democratic lawmakers had hoped to run out the clock on the bill and push a final Senate vote on the bill into Saturday. At a hastily called news conference at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, Carlee pledged to keep up the city’s fight, even as events were rapidly unfolding in Raleigh.
“We have committed to do whatever we can … to protect the interest of the airport,” Carlee said. “If legislation passes that we think puts the airport at risk, we will do everything we can do to prohibit or mitigate that risk.”
During the debate on the House floor, Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, said the restraining order issued last week would only apply to the earlier legislation. Carlee told the Observer that the city’s lawyers were studying the matter.
Under the new plan, a 13-member commission would run the airport, with seven of the 13 members appointed by the city.
The city would retain approval of bond issuance and eminent domain. But the commission would oversee daily operations, control airport finances and would hire and fire the aviation director and other employees.
The city’s current Airport Advisory Committee would serve as the initial commission, with limited powers, until October.
Under the bill, the commission’s first aviation director would be the airport’s leader on Feb. 14, which was Orr. His initial compensation would be the same he received in February and he would be entitled to a continuation of his retirement benefits.
Orr declined to comment.
Under the earlier legislation, an 11-member Charlotte Airport Authority with only four appointments by the City Council and mayor would have taken ownership and control of Charlotte Douglas.
Carlee said that he thought the new bill came up because last week’s legislation was “a bad bill, a fatally flawed bill.”
In its legal action last week, the city outlined concerns about bonds and the taking of city property, but Carlee said that the latest bill remained unsatisfactory. He said he expects “a number of legal issues will pop out of this new legislation.”
Carlee said earlier Thursday that council member David Howard received a copy of the bill at 11:16 p.m. Wednesday, but there had been no “formal communications” with the city about the bill.
“Attempts at drafting new legislation once again demonstrated a unilateral attempt to take control of the airport away from the City,” the city added in a statement. “The new bill did reflect concessions made to the City but only in appointments, issuance of bonds, and eminent domain.”
The bill didn’t give the city enough oversight over airport operations, selection of the airport director, contracting and airport finances, the city said. City leaders urged the state to repeal the authority bill and study the issue further.
“The problem with this is they are trying to cobble this thing together so quickly, but it’s so technical it’s really, really risky,” Carlee said. “We are worried about unintended consequences. With all of this happening at the eleventh hour and 59 seconds, without any real study, it’s gambling with the airport.”
Carlee said at the news conference that he has been in continuous discussions with US Airways, which operates its largest hub in Charlotte and is in the middle of a merger with American Airlines.
“They do not want conflict, they do not want instability,” he said.
Bagel shop compromise
The fight Thursday left Mecklenburg’s delegation even more divided than it had been, following a bruising session that saw infighting over everything from the airport to the Panthers to the streetcar. Carney said the proposed bill was “shameful,” “disrespectful” and “distasteful.”
“Our airport is in an emergency state,” Carney said on the House floor Thursday.
“It’s tricks, it’s underhanded,” said Graham. “There’s no transparency, no trust, no good will.”
Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, said that Samuelson told her some of the provisions in the bill were thought up while Republican legislators were eating at Bruegger’s Bagels.
“They hijacked our airport,” said Cotham. “You do not make legislative action or take away our airport while eating bagels.”
Samuelson, meanwhile, said she was “floored” the city rejected the legislators’ offer, and said that she thought the city had been on board with the compromise. She said the rejection Thursday is part of a long pattern of city intransigence.
“We’ve tried to build consensus on it before, and we’ve been stonewalled,” said Samuelson.
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, showed messages from his cellphone to demonstrate that council member Howard had known of the compromise attempt Wednesday night. He said the compromise was initiated by the city.
“They can change their minds, but they can’t change the facts,” he said in a General Assembly hallway.
Samuelson formally introduced the bill, which would have created a commission, at a 10:15 a.m. House Rules Committee meeting. But less than a minute after the committee convened, Samuelson pulled the bill, following a heated exchange in the hallway with Carney.
“I thought we were working with the city,” she told the committee. “I found out as we walked in the door we were not.”
The committee then adjourned.
“We’re communicating, I think we’re making progress,” Samuelson said, describing events Wednesday night. “I thought we had enough.
“They have rejected every olive branch. I hope this shows we have done everything we could...They want to go to court.”
More information at CharlotteObserver.com