RALEIGH, N.C. -- North Carolina’s governor and two top legislators would make some appointments to a new Charlotte airport authority, according to a draft of a bill that could be introduced this week in the state Senate.
The bill – to be introduced by Sen. Bob Rucho, a Matthews Republican – would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city of Charlotte to an independent governing board.
The 11-member board would include members from Mecklenburg and three surrounding counties as well as the three political appointees, according to the draft obtained by the Observer.
Rucho declined comment on the bill Tuesday. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Democrat, alluded to a meeting he had with the Republican senator.
“Sen. Rucho and I had a very frank and cordial conversation over the weekend,” Foxx said in a statement Tuesday. “While I remain unconvinced that a radical governance change is necessary or helpful to make the airport even stronger, a study might help everyone think through the consequences, both intended and unintended.”
Foxx said he offered Rucho some feedback.
“Rather than cramming a governance change down the throats of Charlotteans, let’s discuss the impetus for the bill and see if a less drastic alternative can resolve it,” he said.
Charlotte Douglas is now the state’s only major city-run airport. Under the proposal, it would join Raleigh-Durham, Piedmont Triad International and several other North Carolina airports that are controlled by authorities.
Last year, legislators created the independent Greater Asheville Regional Airport Authority. Some of the language in the proposed bill echoes legislation that created the Asheville authority. One exception: granting appointment power to state political leaders.
The draft specifies that the governor, the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tem would each have an appointment to the board. The three currently in those positions are all Republicans.
The draft also calls for one member appointed by the mayor of Charlotte, one by the City Council, one by Mecklenburg County commissioners and one each by commissioners in Gaston, Cabarrus and Union counties.
Two more would have to have aviation experience and be chosen by the other nine members. None could serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.
Charlotte Douglas has a city-appointed advisory board, but ultimate oversight comes from the city manager and City Council.
With its $405 million annual budget, the airport is a city department set up as a financially separate enterprise. Money from the fees and grants it collects has to be used on the airport, which takes no local tax dollars.
Large projects are paid for with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bonds issued by the airport and paid back from airport operations.
City taken by surprise
The airport authority proposal took city leaders by surprise when it was fist rumored last month. Last week Rep. Bill Brawley, like Rucho a Matthews Republican, said the effort comes in response to concerns of “senior business leaders.”
He said while the city has done a good job managing the airport, “many business leaders are concerned that Charlotte is about to stop managing the airport wisely.”
Charlotte Douglas aviation director Jerry Orr has suggested that he would welcome authority oversight. Relations between Orr and city staff have been strained.
City Council member David Howard met with Rucho over the weekend. Howard said he also told Rucho an authority wasn’t needed “when for decades (the city) has done a good job running the airport.”
Howard said he appreciated being able to preview the bill.
“The senator in good faith was trying to give us an opportunity to give him feedback,” Howard said.
Some community leaders wouldn’t mind a change.
“Jerry’s done a good job,” businessman Cameron Harris said Tuesday. “Now, if Jerry is not there, I would probably be in favor of an authority. The bureaucracy that exists at the city level is way more than it should be.”
‘More nimble to act’
Lew Bleiweis, executive director of the Asheville authority, also is an advocate of independent management.
“It makes us more nimble to act,” he said. “We’re streamlined.”
Until last year, Asheville’s airport was under an authority controlled by the city of Asheville and Buncombe County. Now the seven-member board includes members appointed by those bodies, as well as Henderson County.
Raleigh-Durham has been run by an authority since 1939. An eight-member board is appointed by the Wake and Durham county commissioners, the city of Durham and the city of Raleigh.
“It’s never really been a problem,” said John Brantley, who retired as aviation director in 2011 after 29 years. “There is almost always unanimous agreement on what is done, and that to me is the greatest strength of the authority.”
Under the draft, a Charlotte airport authority’s monthly meetings would be subject to the state’s open meetings law. Brantley said the media has regularly covered meetings of the RDU authority.
The authority would have no taxing power. Airport land, now owned by the city, would transfer to the authority.