Dogfight over airport exposes regional rifts

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJuly 21, 2013 


Construction continues on a new parking deck at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Despite last-ditch efforts by Gov. Pat McCrory and others to forge a compromise, the N.C. House Tuesday passed a bill to create a new Charlotte airport authority. Jeff Siner -

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    “By their action, it showed their vindictive and childish behavior by putting the entire airport at risk.”

    Sen. Bob Rucho,

    Matthews Republican

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    “She said ‘Here we are sitting up here with the bazookas and y’all are down there with water balloons, and you’re sending us this?’”


    a Democrat, on a conversation with GOP Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte

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    “(T)o remove (Jerry Orr) at this critical juncture seems to be an incredibly irresponsible action… .”

    N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis,

    a Cornelius Republican

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    “It’s disappointing to me that they chose to go down this road of stealing our airport.”

    City Council member Michael Barnes,

    a Democrat

For years Charlotte’s legislative battles were often defined by geography. Urban vs. rural. “The Great State of Mecklenburg” vs. the rest of North Carolina.

Now it’s a civil war, with city officials clashing with some of the county’s own state lawmakers.

At stake is the future of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, one of the world’s busiest and a key to regional economic development. And at risk are future relations between city and a legislature that holds broad power over it.

Insults are flying: Lawmakers are “stealing” the city’s airport, pursuing an “immoral” end.

City officials are “vindictive and childish” and “incredibly irresponsible.”

“I can’t ever recall anything like this,” says Bill McCoy, the retired director of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. “It seems like there’s no common ground where people can talk about it. It’s very personal.”

In a dizzying sequence of events, the General Assembly on Thursday created a new airport authority to run the airport, saw the city persuade a judge to block it, and then watched the sudden departure of the longtime aviation director, Jerry Orr. City officials and Orr supporters couldn’t even agree whether he resigned or was fired.

With that, an already rocky relationship got worse. Rep. Kelly Alexander, a Charlotte Democrat, calls the atmosphere “poisonous.”

To be sure, the city and the state have worked together in other areas.

Last week, officials broke ground on a $1.1 billion extension of Charlotte’s light rail line, financed in large part with state money. And without a dissenting vote, lawmakers passed a bill to redo Mecklenburg County’s flawed 2011 property revaluation.

But some fear resentments over the airport will linger, jeopardizing not only future collaboration but economic development.

“It’s all very unfortunate,” says Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan. “The city and state need to be together. That is the face we present to the rest of the world from an economic development perspective.”

Legislative influence is sweeping.

In Mecklenburg and throughout the state, lawmakers control the purse strings over education, transportation and infrastructure. Legislators can rewrite regulations that affect everything from billboards to zoning. They can limit cities’ ability to annex and even “de-annex” neighborhoods without cities’ consent.

Some fear the airport fight could hurt regional cooperation.

In April, frustrated by the push for an airport authority, the city council voted unanimously to withdraw support for a resolution in support of the proposed Monroe Connector-Bypass, a project long sought by Union County.

“That was an example of the regional cooperation taken for granted,” says Sen. Joel Ford, a Charlotte Democrat. “That’s now in jeopardy because of the airport bill.”

Attempts at compromise

Last week’s drama was set in motion more than a year ago.

In early 2012 a, executive with US Airways, the airport’s largest tenant, had a tense meeting with then-City Manager Curt Walton over how much say the airline would have over Orr’s eventual successor.

Planning consultant Michael Gallis, who has worked with Orr, heard about the tensions and raised concerns with Stan Campbell, a former member of the City Council and Airport Advisory Committee. At the same time, developer Johnny Harris was warning of the politicization of the airport by city leaders he saw as “paralyzed” over a streetcar dispute.

US Airways forwarded a draft of possible authority legislation to Campbell. In December, Campbell approached Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican.

But the prospect of an authority only became public in February, shortly before Rucho filed legislation. He said lawmakers and still-unidentified business leaders thought the city was about to stop managing the airport “wisely.”

Blindsided, then-Mayor Anthony Foxx blasted the efforts of lawmakers in “the backrooms of Raleigh.” He and other city officials argued that the airport had grown and prospered under decades of city control.

Rucho quickly pushed the bill through the Senate. House leaders slowed it, allowing time for a city-funded study that concluded that an authority might be the best long-term model. Even then there were efforts to bring the sides together.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, Charlotte’s former mayor, quietly urged compromise. So did business leaders such as former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl Jr.

‘The Charlotte way’ fails

GOP lawmakers proposed a joint study commission. Just last week, city leaders offered to put the airport under an independent commission.

But each side spurned the other, even as late as Thursday.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Charlotte Republican and a House sponsor of the airport bill, called city leaders that morning, sweetening an offer for them to join legislators in studying airport governance. The city declined.

Samuelson’s offer, backed by House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, was the latest effort – and latest failure – to resolve the issue “the Charlotte way.”

“The business community and the city leaders I don’t think had enough face-to-face dialogue to work out their differences among themselves before coming to the state,” McCrory told the Observer.

"They need to first try everything they can to try to resolve the problem internally. That was ‘the Charlotte way’ that fell apart.”

City leaders, however, blame McCrory for characterizing the fight as a local dispute and not doing more to help the city he led for 14 years.

In Charlotte, the airport fight united the City Council’s two Republicans and nine Democrats. All opposed the loss of city control of Charlotte Douglas. But in Raleigh, the battle became strictly partisan.

Virtually all Republicans voted for the authority. Almost all Democrats opposed it.

Suburbs vs. cities

Charlotte wasn’t the only city to clash with the General Assembly’s GOP majority. Asheville, Greensboro and Raleigh also had local issues that drew legislative interest.

When lawmakers voted to transfer Asheville’s water system to a Metropolitan Sewerage District in May, the city went to court to stop it. A Superior Court judge has so far blocked the transfer. A hearing next month will consider a permanent injunction

“What we’re facing is pretty unprecedented,” says Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy, a Democrat. “Our court case will truly define what power a municipality has to stand on its own. … In the big scheme of things, it has diminished trust between the state and the city.”

Such battles aren’t peculiar to North Carolina.

In Georgia, Republican lawmakers redrew lines for the Fulton County commission to give GOP voters more clout. There’s also a move to give Republican-leaning suburbs more control over Atlanta’s public transit system.

As in Georgia, North Carolina’s fight also featured lawmakers from Republican suburbs against leaders of Democratic-run cities. Two of the main sponsors of the airport bill were Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, both Republicans from suburban Matthews.

Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Hendersonville Republican and chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, calls the dispute part of the state’s “growing pains.” North Carolina, once dominated by rural interests, has seen political power shift to Republican-leaning suburbs and Democratic-controlled cities.

“The smaller areas are having to fight back,” Apodaca says. “The cities are growing so large, trying to take over everything.”

Repairing the wounds

City Manager Ron Carlee came to Charlotte this spring from a job in northern Virginia as chief operating officer for the International City/County Management Association. He found himself thrust in the middle of the city’s most bitter and polarized dispute in years.

“I would love to be in a less political environment,” he says.

Demographic changes have fueled that environment.

“You’ve got a regional delegation that is mostly Republican and a city government that is increasingly Democrat,” says John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. “It’s not just a partisan dynamic. It’s an ideological dynamic. They simply have different views.”

Those differences played out on other fronts, including the city’s efforts to get money to help the Carolina Panthers. Brawley, the Republican legislator, says he’s rarely been able to reach agreement with the city on a host of bills, such as those affecting urban design standards or other urban regulations.

“I’ve never been able to approach them with an issue and been able to work it out … Their answer is ‘no’,” he says. “We don’t have to like each other; we just have to get along.”

Because the General Assembly has enormous clout over cities, urban leaders in Charlotte and elsewhere are dependent on working relationships.

“So there’s going to have to be some healing done,” says Republican City Council member Andy Dulin, an outspoken critic of the airport authority.

With the current legislative session expected to wrap up this week, Ellis Hankins, executive director of the N.C. League of Municipalities, says his group will continue to try to find common ground.

“We look forward to having more conversations between sessions about how local (officials) and members of the General Assembly can work more cooperatively to serve the citizens of the state,” he says.

Samuelson says she sees “conflict as an opportunity.”

“The (Charlotte City) Council and legislature will have to continue to try to work together if we want what’s best for Charlotte,” she says.

“We’ve learned some lessons in this. Hopefully they’re positive lessons.”

Staff writers Michael Gordon and Ely Portillo contributed.

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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