CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina judge on Friday denied a motion to dismiss the city’s lawsuit in the battle with North Carolina lawmakers for control of the nation’s sixth busiest airport.
Judge Robert Ervin also said he didn’t have authority to rule on a key issue designed to make it easier for the state to take control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which the city has run for 70 years.
Mayor Patsy Kinsey praised the decision and said the city will keep fighting to retain control of the airport.
“The court’s action today affirms that the legislation presents serious legal issues that cannot be quickly and easily resolved. Charlotte remains committed to protect the airport from the adverse consequences of the legislation,” she said.
But Richard Vinroot, an attorney for a new commission that would oversee the airport’s daily operations if the state took control, said the fight is far from over. He said the state would file a new motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
“The issue is too important. ... This is serious business,” he said, adding that the airport is an important economic asset for the area.
This is the latest development in Charlotte’s battle to stop GOP lawmakers from taking over the airport.
Earlier this year, GOP lawmakers said they would introduce legislation to strip the airport from the city because said they wanted to keep it operating at a high level in the future. They said they were concerned that the city was going to transfer airport revenue to the general fund - a move that would threaten the airport’s low costs.
But city leaders said that was nonsense - and that the move was political on the part of GOP leaders who wrested control of the formerly longtime Democratic legislature in 2010 and then the governorship in 2012.
Charlotte officials, including former Mayor Anthony Foxx, now the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, said the bill was uncalled for because the city has done a good job running the airport.
On July 18, the General Assembly approved transferring the airport, a hub for Tempe-Ariz.-based US Airways, to a regional authority. But a few hours later, a judge issued a temporary order blocking the move in response to a city lawsuit.
City officials feared that transferring control to an authority would send $800 million in airport bonds into default.
A week after the ruling, legislators tried a different approach to address the city’s objections.
The state House and Senate repealed the airport authority measure and replaced it with legislation that created a 13-member commission. Under the new plan, the city would still own the airport — but the commission would operate it. The commission also would make critical decisions about the airport’s operations, including awarding contracts, hiring and firing and approving expansion plans.
The city filed another lawsuit, and Ervin in August issued a preliminary injunction, blocking the state from stripping control of the airport from the city until the Federal Aviation Administration weighed in on the issue.
A few weeks later, the FAA notified city officials that they would stay out of the fight until the legal issues are resolved in court. The FAA said it couldn’t approve the newly created commission to operate the airport until it had more information about the body’s role and structure.
Meanwhile, state and commission lawyers, along with the city, have been filing motions in the case.
At Friday’s hearing, Ervin was asked by the commission to rule on a critical issue: Was the commission a part of the city or was it a separate entity?
If the judge ruled the commission was part of the city, the airport’s operating certificate, issued by the FAA, could be easily transferred to the commission, Vinroot said.
But if he ruled the commission was a separate entity, the situation could be more complicated.
Vinroot told the judge the FAA wants that questioned answered, and that the judge had the authority to make the decision.
“Your opinion is key to this case,” he said.
But Ervin said the commission was asking him to issue an advisory opinion to a federal agency, something he noted he did not have the authority to do.
“They could look at what I say and say, ‘So what?”’ he said.
Ervin said FAA officials could come in and answer questions if they wanted to.
“It seems to me that it’s their call,” he said.
Vinroot said he will file new motions on behalf of the commission and be back in court early next month. In the meantime, he said, the commission will hold its first meeting Thursday.
“We’re going to keep moving ahead.”