Tempers flared like the summer heat at Tuesday afternoon’s meeting of the Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority.
The issue involved renewing a contract with the law firm of Florio Perrucci Steinhard & Fader, which provides the authority’s solicitor.
The debate was initiated when board member Robert Buesing asked: “Are we getting the best legal recommendations by an outside company? Or is it time that we search for our own in-house counsel – and can we do that at the same cost?”
He initially suggested the authority only approve the law firm on a month-to-month basis until alternatives can be evaluated.
Buesing indicated the 15-member board has problems getting the Florio firm to make correct decisions or even to make any decision.
Yet he later said: “I’m not saying anything against the law firm.”
Board member T.J. Rooney strongly disagreed: “By a lack of action, I think it does blemish. Counsel has been very, very good to us; been consistently good to us.”
“And paid very well,” said board member Jane Baker.
Responded Rooney: “Paid appropriately and paid less than other people who have done the job before them. Sometimes we have a tendency here to trip over ourselves. This is an example of us tripping over ourselves.”
Board member Michael Dowd said the law firm has given the authority good advice and excellent representation. “We’ve been able to move forward in some difficult contracts and difficult language.”
Dowd said the firm, which has 35 lawyers, can draw from a diversity of experience.
“For the number we’re talking about, we’d be very hard pressed to get a first-class attorney with aviation experience.”
But other board members said they did not have that number and asked when they were going to get it.
The law firm has come up with a flat rate fee of $9,000 a month for general legal services, said attorney Robert M. Donchez, the board’s solicitor.
Donchez added: “There would be some matters outside of that retainer -- namely litigation, arbitration, collective bargaining, any zoning hearings or unemployment appeals – specialized things that would be billed at $165 an hour. I can tell you in the past three years we’ve done very few of those things, so I don’t anticipate there would be a lot.”
The board learned that $9,000-a-month fee --- $108,000 a year -- will be lower than the firm has been paid.
Charles Everett, the authority’s executive director, reported legal expenses were $140,000 in 2012, $194,000 in 2011 and $136,000 in 2010.
The Florio law firm –one of its founders is former New Jersey Governor James Florio – apparently has been working for the airport authority for three years. The current contract expires Friday.
The board’s executive committee recommended approving a new 2.5-year contract.
Buesing is concerned legal costs will increase beyond $9,000 a month, such as those involving the sale of properties owned by the airport authority.
He said everyone on the board “has a fiduciary obligation to make correct decisions in everything we do. You’re asking me to vote on a contract I never saw. I cannot vote on that and will not vote on that today.”
Buesing suggested tabling it until July to have “a more educated vote.” Board member Jane Baker made a motion supporting that one-month delay.
Donchez had no objection to a one-month extension of the current agreement until the new contract could be approved.
But that idea angered Rooney, who supported the executive committee’s recommendation to retain the law firm and said: “I absolutely do believe my fellow board members have brains in their heads. I do believe that when they come here and analyze whatever is before the committees, they do so with a wholesome heart and a free conscience. They looked at it. They voted 5-0 to recommend it. That’s good enough for me.”
Board member Anne Baum said she trusts other members of the board but felt everyone should have received at least a one-page written summary of the executive committee’s recommendation. “We are being asked to make a decision on something about which we have no information.”
Dowd noted the board had just unanimously approved an expansion of network file storage – “an area about which most of us know nothing whatsoever” – based on another committee’s recommendation, with no papers in front of board members.
“We accepted the recommendation of the committee. We do that on a regular basis here.
Rooney said both the board and the airport staff are professionals.
“We’ve got to have some faith in the committees we have,” agreed board vice chairman Marc Troutman, who ran the meeting.
Said Dowd: “The executive committee was pleased with the contract.”
Buesing said committees recommend, but the board makes the decisions.
Baker’s motion was defeated 7-4. Voting with her were Buesing, Baum and Anthony Boyle.
The board then voted 9-2 to rehire the firm for 2.5 years, from Friday through Dec. 31, 2015. Only Baker and Buesing voted no.
Donchez thanked the board for its support and said “we look forward to continuing our relationship. It’s been a pleasure to work with all of you."
Buesing initially wanted to ask questions about the new agreement in a closed-door executive session. Donchez said that was not necessary. Responded Buesing: “How do I ask the questions that are not going to upset our current law firm?”
Someone replied: “Probably out loud.”
“OK, if you want to do it here,” said Buesing. “I thought in the past we talked about it in executive session.”
Also during the meeting:
* Everett announced tickets will go on sale Monday for the Aug. 24-25 air show at Lehigh Valley International Airport. He said advance tickets, which are less expensive than buying them at the gate, will be sold at Wegmans, the Sands ticket office, the airport and on-line at lehighvalleyairshow.com.
* Authority treasurer Dean Browning reported “we are making money,” but net income from operations of the airport is $200,000 less than budgeted for the first five months of 2013.