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A lawyerly approach to ending Charlotte’s airport struggle

From James Preston, retired Charlotte attorney:

Didn’t it make you relieved and proud to wake up and read in the Observer on July 24 that two legislative bodies in North Carolina had actually agreed to a compromise solution to the dispute regarding Charlotte Douglas Airport? We were showing the world that North Carolina legislative bodies could address a sticky issue in the interest of the people, putting aside political gamesmanship and agreeing in essence to a negotiation where each side gets most of what it wants; and the airport is actually better than if either side had “won.”

Alas, the brilliant compromise would not hold. Politicians of both sides tore it apart in a fit of raw power that threatens to tear apart the prize like a toy caught between angry children.

I lawyered in Charlotte for 50 years, so I naturally credited the display of reason exhibited initially to an instance of our legal system operating at its best. I know what the lawyers’ jobs are when their clients are involved in litigation and the courts look like the last resort. Poetically the lawyer’s job is either to bring order out of chaos or chaos out of order. Clearly in the case of the venerable airport the former dictum applies.

We should all, now, let the lawyers do their jobs and present to their clients a workable solution – yes, a compromise. Each side is represented by able and experienced counsel who know their desired conclusion and how to achieve it. The litigants need it; the judge expects it; the people demand it.

At bottom, as lawyers say, there seem to be two legitimate issues in the dispute. One is the retention of Aviation Director Jerry Orr’s services for a reasonable period. The other is to provide some representation in airport governance to citizens of areas around Charlotte.

The lawyers will explore an updated employment contract for Mr. Orr. The term might be for three years, until he is 75, during which time Mr. Orr will be expected to be the CEO of the airport; and, as such, will be expected to identify and train and gradually trust and empower his successor or successor team. His employer and he might extend the term, but he must act like a CEO nevertheless – prepare his company for his absence (by retirement, sickness, death, etc.).

The lawyers will simultaneously counsel broadening the geographic reach of governance of the airport. One approach would be for the city to continue to own and be responsible for the airport and its finances and for the airport advisory council to be reconstituted. For example, they might consider a council of seven – three appointed by the city council; three appointed on a rotating basis from and by Cabarrus, Union, Gaston, Iredell and Lincoln; and the chair appointed by the city. The lawyers can figure out cross-checks and balances. This might require new legislation; but…Hey!

There will, obviously, be other considerations; but I cannot think of any that a lawyer can’t work through. But one: Politics. We can fashion a win-win-win situation only without politics. The parties must enter upon a compromise negotiation with a spirit aimed at avoiding an Armageddon which threatens to harm one of North Carolina’s greatest assets. They must understand, however, that no one “wins” in litigation and that in a successful negotiation (a “good” settlement) no one gets all one wants.

So let’s do it. Allow the legal system to work as it should, with mutual respect for the law and each other. I guarantee an acceptable conclusion without the rancor now scorching the earth between Charlotte and Raleigh. Then, we can get on with having the best airport in the best city in the best state in the world.

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