Charlotte Airport Battle

Legal costs in Charlotte airport fight top $1 million

The fight over who should run Charlotte’s airport is stalled, but the meter is still running: Lawyers’ bills for the city and the Charlotte Airport Commission have topped $1 million.

Both Charlotte and the commission have hired outside counsel to represent them in the city’s lawsuit seeking to block the commission. Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann told the Observer this week that the city’s legal tab now totals $552,600, up from $397,000 at the end of last year.

The commission hasn’t disclosed its legal bills. But a source with knowledge of the bills said they are approximately $500,000 as well. A Superior Court judge is scheduled to hear arguments in the lawsuit Oct. 10.

It’s still unclear how the 13-member commission – which remains barred by a judge’s order from running the airport – plans to pay the bills. The commission has no funds, and it’s far from certain that it will end up winning the legal fight.

Charlotte attorney Martin Brackett, of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson, is representing the commission. He could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

The commission has been in limbo for more than a year, created but blocked from running the airport. Charlotte City Council remains in control of the airport.

Charlotte Airport Commission Chairman Robert Stolz is traveling internationally and could not be reached Wednesday. But in a tumultuous commission meeting last week, he cited mounting costs as one of the main reasons the fight over Charlotte Douglas International Airport needs to be resolved soon.

“The bills continue to rise at a degree I can only imagine,” said Stolz. “The people involved in these lawsuits ... have no skin in the game.” Stolz, who is chief executive of Wurth Group North America, said businesspeople “would never allow it to go as it’s gone.”

Commission member Aaron McKeithan Jr., a west Charlotte neighborhood leader and retired health care technician, said the commission doesn’t know how the bill will be paid. He also said the commission has not seen a full bill yet.

“The question’s been asked, but not answered,” said McKeithan. “I don’t think attorneys do anything for free.”

Anthony Fox, a commission member and attorney with Parker Poe, also said he hadn’t seen a bill for the commission’s legal services. Former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who left the airport after the bill creating the commission was passed, hired Robinson Bradshaw before the commission members were appointed.

“I’m not aware of an engagement letter or a commitment where the current commission has engaged or retained the law firm,” said Fox. “I think we will have a hard discussion at some point, when and if the commission is operating, about legal fees, what if any responsibility the commission has for the legal fees.”

The city has hired three outside firms – two in North Carolina and one in Boston – to help with its case. The North Carolina attorney general’s office, which is representing the state’s position in favor of the commission, hasn’t hired any outside counsel, a spokeswoman said.

It’s not clear who will ultimately end up in control of the airport. After the N.C. General Assembly passed a bill last year transferring control of Charlotte Douglas to the new regional commission, the city sued. N.C. Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin issued a temporary injunction blocking the commission.

But Ervin has said he wants the Federal Aviation Administration – the agency in charge of issuing airport operating certificates – to decide whether the commission should run the airport before Ervin makes his own ruling.

Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, now U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, told the Observer there’s no timeline for the FAA’s decision. He called the airport control situation “an unnecessary mess,” and said he thinks the issue should be worked out locally.

Meanwhile, the FAA said last week that it’s waiting for the city’s lawsuit to be worked out before it decides on the commission. And, the agency said, it hasn’t considered the issue because the city of Charlotte hasn’t made a formal request to the agency – something the City Council has said it has no interest in doing.

The bureaucratic and legal back-and-forth has left the airport in a no man’s land without a clear path forward. Ervin will hear motions from both sides in the case Oct. 10, though it’s unclear whether he will issue a ruling.

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