CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Is the newly-created Charlotte Douglas International Airport Commission part of the city government, or a distinct legal entity?
Legal briefs filed Monday with Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin lay out many of the issues the judge will consider Friday, and many hinge on that key question.
The answer isn’t as simple as might seem, with lawyers in the battle over who should control Charlotte Douglas taking opposite sides.
“Given the plain language of the Commission Act and its legislative history, the conclusion that the commission is an agency ‘within the city’ is the only plausible reading of the law,” wrote former Charlotte mayor Richard Vinroot, who along with his partners is representing the commission.
Not so, says Charlotte city attorney Bob Hagemann and his partners, in a dueling brief: “The commission is administratively autonomous from the City...It has the power to make its own decisions and govern its own operations. It operates independently of the constituent municipalities.”
How Ervin decides to answer the question could have a big impact on whether the federal government lets the 13-member commission proceed.
Ervin issued a preliminary injunction after the law was passed in July, blocking the commission from exercising most of its powers.
On Friday, Ervin will consider several overlapping motions: The state has moved to dismiss the city’s case, the city has moved to amend its complaint to add new claims, and the commission has moved for partial summary judgment against the city.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for issuing airport operating certificates, said in a letter last month that it needs to know whether the commission is part of the city or not. Charlotte Douglas’ airport certificate is currently issued to the city, and if the airport commission is a separate entity, it would require its own certificate, the city has argued.
The FAA said it also needs to know who is the airport “sponsor” for the purpose of financial obligations. While the commission would oversee almost all aspects of Charlotte Douglas, the city would technically remain owner of the airport’s property and revenue bonds.
“Therefore it is our view that the Superior Court must address at least these questions of state law before the FAA would be in a position to review sponsor eligibility and determine whether a Part 139 Operating Certificate needs to be issued,” wrote Christa Fornarotto, the FAA’s associate administrator for airports, in the letter.
The airport fight consumed much of the Mecklenburg legislative delegation’s time this year and exacerbated sharp partisan divides, with Republicans supporting the effort to take Charlotte Douglas from city control and Democrats fiercely opposed.
The battle also cost longtime aviation director Jerry Orr his city job. City officials say Orr, who had been in charge of the airport since 1989, resigned from his post by sending a letter that said he was now head of the commission. But Orr and Vinroot say he was fired.
Orr is executive director of the airport commission, and is still being paid his $211,000 annual salary. The law creating the commission specifically appoints him to the job.
While the commission is blocked, Orr, 72, is largely relegated to the sidelines, though he said last week he continues to talk with US Airways, the airport’s main tenant. But if a judge rules the commission can take over operations at Charlotte Douglas, and the FAA gives its approval, Orr will be able to return to his old office. He said he plans to retire by June 2015, after a succession plan is in place and key projects such as a fourth parallel runway are in progress.
Interim aviation director Brent Cagle is currently in charge of Charlotte Douglas, reporting to city manager Ron Carlee and Charlotte City Council. The airport remains an independently-funded city department.
Despite Judge Ervin’s injunction, the commission is taking shape. All 13 members have been appointed – seven by the city, and six by Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. The panel’s first meeting is scheduled for Nov. 7.