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Charlotte Rejects Airport Compromise

Todd Sumlin
Charlotte Observer aboard NBC Charlotte's AirStar

RALEIGH A leading House Republican said Monday night that lawmakers will introduce a new proposal for the Charlotte airport this week after city leaders essentially rejected their proposal for a joint study commission.

The new proposal could make creation of a new airport authority more likely.

“I’m astounded,” Rep. Ruth Samuelson said of the city’s reaction. “I’m deeply, deeply disappointed. We made a good faith, unprecedented (offer). We’re done offering a study.”

Samuelson’s comments to the Observer came after City Manager Ron Carlee told her the council’s consensus was not to pursue a proposal unveiled late last month to create a joint city-legislative study.

In a letter to Samuelson on Monday, Democratic Mayor Patsy Kinsey outlined what she described as her “sense of council.”

The proposed makeup of the study commission, with two-thirds of the members appointed by the legislature and one-third by the city, suggested “a predetermined outcome,” she wrote.

“We are 100 percent in favor of keeping the airport as a city department,” she said later Monday.

Samuelson was an original sponsor of a bill that would transfer control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city to an independent authority. The fight over one of the nation’s busiest airports has emerged as the city’s biggest battle of the session.

The Senate approved an authority bill months ago but it stalled in the House.

In late June, Samuelson and GOP Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews proposed the study commission after quiet intervention by Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, and GOP House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius, who sought a compromise between the sides.

The proposed 12-member commission would “recommend to the General Assembly legislation to ensure the long term success of the (airport).” The draft proposal said the commission must consider the option of creating an authority and study the details of a transition from the current management.

But it also said the commission “retains the option of also studying and recommending alternatives to the creation of an Authority.”

Samuelson said at the time that lawmakers were going “the extra mile.” She said both sides would have to negotiate in good faith and agree to accept any recommendations by the commission.

The commission would be co-chaired by a city appointee and a legislative appointee.

“This was an unprecedented offer,” she said Monday night. “We’ve tried everything we can. We’ve treated them as equals and given them a seat at the table. And they’ve turned us down.”

In her letter, Kinsey asked for time for the city to complete its own study. That study, led by Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, is reviewing recommendations made by a city-funded consultant. The consultant surprised city officials when he concluded an authority may be the best long-term solution for airport management.

Kimble’s study is reviewing issues including airport finance and security and employee benefits. Carlee said the study is designed “to make improvements that will benefit (the airport) and its customers.”

In her letter to Samuelson, Kinsey said the legislature could consider the results of the city’s study and still go ahead with an authority next year if it chose to.

“We are confident that the city can address all of the issues raised through the process that we have initiated,” she said. “If we do not do so, alternative action by the General Assembly has not been precluded.”

Samuelson declined to say what a new bill might look like. She said it would still take into account concerns that have been raised by the city.

Kinsey said she isn’t surprised a new bill could be filed. She added that she would be willing to meet with legislative leaders in Raleigh to discuss the issue.

City Council member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, said he isn’t surprised an authority bill may move forward again.

“I think that’s been their intention all along,” he said.

Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

More at the Charlotte Observer.