Gov. Pat McCrory: City should retain Charlotte Douglas International sharrison@charlotteobserver.comNovember 25, 2013 

After months on the sidelines of the fight over Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Gov. Pat McCrory on Monday said he thinks the city should retain control and ownership of the airport.

Speaking on WFAE’s radio show “ Charlotte Talks,” McCrory also said he thinks former aviation director Jerry Orr shouldn’t get his old job back.

Orr has been fighting to return to the helm of Charlotte Douglas since he was removed July 18, the day the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill taking control of the airport from City Council.

“Jerry Orr’s 71 (sic) years old,” said McCrory, a Republican. “He’s been great for the airport, but it’s time to move on. I think Jerry could still add some value, but it’s time to move on. This is not about an individual.”

Orr, 72, declined to comment on McCrory’s remarks.

“Well, no, I didn’t hear it,” Orr told the Observer. “Several people told me about it.”

When asked if he was surprised by McCrory’s comments – Orr worked under McCrory during his 14-year tenure as mayor – Orr said he wasn’t.

“No. Nothing surprises me anymore,” Orr said.

McCrory’s comments are the latest twist in an airport saga that has become more Byzantine by the month. Hostility and sniping between Orr, City Council and Republican and Democratic state legislators erupted into what has now become almost a yearlong war of attrition over the airport’s future.

Republican legislators from Mecklenburg County spearheaded the effort to remove control of the airport’s operations from City Council, passing two bills that gave operational control of Charlotte Douglas to a regional body. McCrory’s comments Monday were his clearest break with his party.

“The city of Charlotte,” McCrory said without hesitation when host Mike Collins asked who should own and control Charlotte Douglas.

State Sen. Bob Rucho, one of the major proponents of the airport commission, panned McCrory’s comments. The Matthews Republican said Orr needs to run the airport and put a succession plan in place.

“When you have a top leader, a CEO of a business, you don’t just cut it off, you allow them to implement a transition,” Rucho said. He said Orr’s long-term vision is crucial to correctly building projects such as the new rail freight yard at the airport and a fourth parallel runway.

After Orr was removed from his position, Rucho said Orr was the one man who could run Charlotte Douglas and Orr had to be restored. Monday, Rucho said the fight was bigger.

“This was never about Mr. Orr,” Rucho said. “It’s always been about the airport.”

Some City Council members said Monday that McCrory’s comments are late. McCrory didn’t publicly oppose the airport commission during the legislative session, and because it was passed as a local bill, McCrory didn’t have to sign or veto the law. During the airport fight, McCrory tried to help broker a compromise but was unsuccessful.

“I’m glad to have the governor’s confidence,” said Republican council member Andy Dulin.

When asked if he wished McCrory had spoken out sooner, Dulin said: “We would have loved to have his support last winter. This might have been averted.”

City Manager Ron Carlee said, “I’ll let the former mayor’s words speak for themselves.”

Mayor Patsy Kinsey said it “would have been nice” if McCrory came out in support of the city’s position earlier.

“But he had his reasons, and I respect those reasons,” Kinsey said. She said his statement could still carry weight if the issue goes back to the legislature.

“He’s the governor,” Kinsey said. “I don’t know how it will all play out.”

A murky fight

Charlotte Douglas is still owned and operated by Charlotte as an independently funded city department. Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle reports to Carlee and City Council.

The city immediately sued after the law passed, and a judge temporarily blocked the Charlotte Airport Commission from running the airport or using most of its powers. Another court hearing is scheduled for Dec. 11.

The commission was formed in spite of the lawsuit, with 13 members. Seven were appointed by City Council and the mayor. Under the law, Orr automatically became the commission’s executive director.

On Nov. 7, the commission held its first meeting. Members voted to consider Orr’s future at their Dec. 19 meeting. He is still being paid his $211,000 annual salary out of airport revenues.

Commission members said they might vote to remove Orr, who has said he’ll retire by June 2015. Felix Sabates, a member of a separate advisory committee created to oversee the commission, told the Observer he believes the commission will remove Orr at its next meeting.

McCrory said Monday that he didn’t get involved in the airport fight because it was a “fight in Charlotte.”

“It was a local bill,” McCrory said. He also said he thought the city politicians had been interfering in the airport.

“When I was mayor of Charlotte we kept the politics out of the airport,” McCrory said. “Our major client, US Airways, and others were very concerned about politics interfering with our airport.”

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr declined to comment Monday.

This summer, US Airways said in a statement it had been concerned that Orr would be forced to retire. The airline has remained publicly “agnostic” about whether the city or a regional commission should run Charlotte Douglas.

“We need to get politics out of Charlotte’s airport. And that includes state politicians, and that includes city politicians, too,” McCrory said. “And we’re working to do just that.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo

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