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THE AIRPORT COMMISSION: POLITICS AIN’T BEANBAG

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Attending the first official meeting of the Charlotte’s new Airport Commission was a fascinating experience on many levels.

The meeting itself provided a unique and authentic mix of suspense, drama, intrigue, irony and amusement – easily surpassing any of the current fare of orchestrated “reality” shows on TV.

The cast of characters was equally compelling. We were treated to the elegance and eloquence of Former Mayor Richard Vinroot, counsel to the Commission (for now), as he gently but meticulously (and surprisingly fairly) laid out the unusual history which had brought these people to this place at this time for this purpose. Quite a feat in itself.

There was also the refreshingly direct commentary of folks like auto entrepreneur and philanthropist Felix Sabates, a member of the separate Oversight Board, who starkly noted that several members of the Commission who were just sworn in clearly don’t even want it to exist.

We were also witness to the re-emergence of former Charlotte City Manager Pam Syfert, whose personal agenda was made crystal-clear by her polite but direct questioning of the Commission retaining counsel to defend itself against the city’s legal challenges. She also questioned retaining the services of Jerry Orr, the embattled former airport director whose appointment was specifically made by the legislation creating the commission on which she serves as a city appointee. (She was also later voted in as Vice Chair).

Jerry Orr took to the microphone for a typically soft-spoken, comprehensive presentation of the airport history and progress under his decades-long direction.

The irony of an Airport Commission meeting to discuss their lack of authority to actually do anything wasn’t lost on several members, who openly expressed their frustration and their assessment of the entire effort as a complete waste of time.

There was the business-like staking out and defense of the City’s legal position by City Attorney Robert Hagemann.

And then there was our new City Manager Ron Carlee, whose far-reaching presentation gave obligatory and unconvincing lip service to the past leadership of Jerry Orr while repeatedly heralding the progress made since his departure. The disconnect from reality was jarring, as Carlee repeatedly attempted to assure the commission that the city’s relentless legal challenges were not really a threat and as he brazenly lobbied them to unilaterally disarm by discharging their attorneys. A rather striking argument.

And then there was the commission’s retreat behind closed doors to deliberate privately on “legal services” and “personnel issues” – in other words, the fates of Richard Vinroot and Jerry Orr.

During those 90 minutes behind closed doors, ironically, the lights went out in their meeting room, leaving the entire commission “in the dark” — literally as well as figuratively.

It was during that time that the rest of us stretched, refreshed ourselves, spoke with the media, checked messages, tweeted. But also, some interesting personal interactions took place, even among unlikely participants.

With the long-term control of the largest single economic engine of the Carolinas and billions of dollars at stake, and with the competing agendas, considerable reputations and egos of the stakeholders hanging in the balance, the tension in the room was at times almost electric.

Yet, during that 90 minutes of waiting for the commission to return to open session, there were refreshing glimmers of humanity which transcended the occasion, even if only for a fleeting moment. It served as a reminder that this is all politics and, while it “ain’t beanbag,” it also “ain’t personal.” At least, that’s how it should be.

As one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing challenge to the city, charging violations of the NC Open Meetings Law during the closed-door Panthers meetings, let’s just say that my relationship with representatives of the city has been adversarial and, at times, stridently so.

However, during that surreal 90-minute window of waiting, Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble and I enjoyed a chat which I couldn’t characterize as anything less than delightful. We shared a good laugh when I dramatically pointed at him and warned, “When the transcripts of this closed-door meeting are released, Sir, if there’s even ONE mention of the Panthers, there’s gonna be trouble!” Kimble retorted, “If there is, I’m coming over to YOUR side!”

My colleagues and I have been battling with City Attorney Robert Hagemann in and out of court over the closed-door Panthers meetings for the last nine months. Yet, we were able to share a laugh together when he came up to me and said with a grin, “Now I know what it feels like to be shut out of a closed-door meeting!”

These trivialities may seem like just that — but, in fact, they are a welcome reminder that we can disagree politically and even passionately on what’s best for Charlotte. However, that doesn’t preclude us from occasionally pressing the personal reset button and giving at least tacit acknowledgment to what is hopefully our common goal — to serve our community the best we know how.

And then there was that golden moment with City Manager Ron Carlee.

We hadn’t yet spoken a word or even made eye contact all evening. But when he was informed that the lights had gone out on the closed-door session in the adjoining room, he personally went to check on the situation. Immediately returning, he said, “They can’t turn the lights back on in there.” I replied, (helpfully, I thought), “The 9 O’Clock timer kicked in.” In fact, that is precisely what happened.

Our City Manager responded with an icy, silent glare that seemed like it could easily endanger the lighting in the rest of the building. Yikes.

A difference of style or substance? A miscommunication or an outreach rebuffed?

Like the fate of the Airport Commission or our ongoing Open Meetings Law challenge — the jury may still be out on that one.

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