The bill affecting local governments during the 2013 session of the General Assembly that has generated the most news coverage may be a proposal transferring control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the city of Charlotte to an independent regional authority.
Whether an independent authority would manage the airport better is an open question. What seems certain is that the transfer as currently proposed is a classic example of the cure being worse than the underlying illness.
The issue largely centers around Jerry Orr, the airport’s longtime director. Orr has been in charge of the airport since 1989 and, along the way, has come to operate it without much outside supervision. While the airport does have an advisory committee, it has been little more than a rubber stamp for Orr’s vision.
Charlotte City Council hasn’t been much more active in providing oversight. Nor has there been much questioning of Orr’s leadership in Charlotte’s business community; quite the contrary, as Orr’s pronouncements are taken as gospel.
Things began to change in late 2010, after a teenager named Delvonte Tisdale evaded security and stowed away in the wheel well of a US Airways flight to Boston, the first time since 1972 such a stowaway had happened in the United States. Hiding in the unpressurized section of a jetliner usually doesn’t have a happy ending, and Tisdale’s case proved no exception.
Unsurprisingly, the city’s elected and appointed leadership began to pay much more attention to how the airport was run. The airport’s police force was placed under the control of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department. CMPD, in turn, assigned more officers to the airport, resulting in an additional expense for the airlines flying out of Charlotte Douglas.
This didn’t sit well with Orr. As The Charlotte Observer’s reporting later showed, no one involved behaved very well. The situation soon degenerated to the point at which powerful Friends of Jerry — Sen. Bob Rucho and Rep. Bill Brawley, both Republicans from suburban Mecklenburg County — introduced legislation creating the new authority.
Under Rucho and Brawley’s proposal, Mecklenburg County and each of the five adjacent counties would name one member to the panel. Charlotte would have two representatives, one appointed by city council, the other by the mayor. Additional appointments would come from the leaders of the House and Senate, as well as the governor.
What Charlotte Douglas International Airport needs is active and effective oversight while maintaining a good relationship with the city. The current bill doesn’t guarantee that.
If Rucho and Brawley expect that an independent authority would end the bickering, they are mistaken. Rather, such a move likely would perpetuate conflict between the airport and the city. Think nasty divorce, with lots of distrust on both sides, and absolutely no reason for either party to be nice to the other.
The problems extend beyond that. Is there any reason to expect an independent authority to provide meaningful oversight of the airport in general and Jerry Orr in particular? If such an authority comes about, Orr effectively would have succeeded in getting his former bosses fired (OK, removed from his chain of command) for daring to cross him.
That point won’t be lost on authority members, and it will make them unlikely to question anything Orr or his successor says. Nor is it obvious why a regional authority should be responsible for Charlotte’s airport but not also those in the surrounding counties that have seats on the new board.
How we structure local government matters. The current proposal to create an independent Charlotte airport authority simply creates a structure that perpetuates an unhealthy relationship between the city and the airport.
Michael Lowrey is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.