Raleigh, N.C. — In a stunning display of disregard for parliamentary rules, House Republican leaders quickly resurrected a new bill Thursday afternoon to take away Charlotte's authority over its airport.
During a hastily-called House Rules Committee meeting for which no agenda was offered in advance, House Republican caucus Co-chairwoman Ruth Samuelson re-offered a new airport bill that she had angrily withdrawn from the same committee just two hours earlier.
The bill, Senate Bill 380, would repeal the measure approved by state lawmakers one week ago. That law, Senate Bill 81, gave Charlotte Douglas International Airport – and its billions of dollars in assets – to a politically appointed regional authority.
The city filed a lawsuit as soon as the bill was ratified, persuading a judge to stay the new law. City officials then promptly fired airport manager Jerry Orr.
Samuelson, R-Mecklenburg, said the city's actions came as a surprise.
"Our goal all along had been to do what was best for the airport and, if possible, avoid a lawsuit," she said. "We did not anticipate that the city would fire (Orr)."
Under the new proposal, which sets up a commission to run the airport, the city would still own the airport, but the commission would run it, making all financial decisions and managing hiring and firing. The city would have the majority of appointees on the new board, but regional and state interests would also be represented.
The new bill, by repealing the original law, would also void the city's lawsuit, Samuelson said, and Orr would be rehired as airport manager.
"I hope one day the city of Charlotte will acknowledge that this was a good deal," Samuelson said.
Rep. Becky Carney, D-Mecklenburg, was furious. She said the Charlotte City Council does not support the new bill and said neither city officials nor Mecklenburg County Democrats had been given an opportunity to even read the new measure before it appeared in committee Thursday morning.
"The city indicated all along – and I said on the floor last week – that there would be a lawsuit," Carney said. "I'm surprised that this has now come to be all about one man."
Carney, whose husband worked for the airport for years, said there hasn't yet been any problem with the city's management of the facility. She warned the new bill would only result in another lawsuit by the city.
"This is typical of how we jam stuff through at the last minute with no regard for the people we're doing it to back home," she said. "There's a lot of unrest in our state, a lot of angry people."
Carney asked for other members to be allowed to comment. Two raised their hands. But Rules Committee Chairman Tim Moore ignored them, instead calling the vote on the bill.
Democrats shouted for "division" – a vote by counting hands – but that call was also ignored. With both sides shouting their voice votes, Moore pronounced the measure approved.
"Ram it through," Carney said angrily.
After the meeting, Charlotte Democrats held a press conference to protest.
"Republican leadership in the House and Senate hijacked our airport," said Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg.
Cotham said Samuelson told her she worked out the deal at a bagel shop.
"You do not take legislative action and take away our airport while having bagels," Cotham said.
Republicans pushed back against the "hijacking" narrative.
Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said he first heard about the idea of a city-run airport commission when a member of Charlotte City Council called him last night. At least one Democratic lawmaker then carried the idea forward, he said.
So it was a surprise when Democrats began objecting today.
"It is disingenuous and unfair to say we are shoving it through," Jeter said, adding that he was not defending the process followed in the House Rules committee, but rather the substance of the bill. "This was their offer to me. They are entitled to change their minds, but they are not entitled to change the facts."
The bill was expected on the House floor later Thursday.