by Max Brantley
The Little Rock Airport Commission deferred action today on replacing Mark Stodola's law firm, Catlett and Stodola, as the airport's counsel since Stodola is soon to take office as Little Rock mayor. We weren't there, but are relying on an observer for this report.
The city attorney has said that, as a matter of law, Stodola may serve so long as he recuses from votes on airport matters.
But others, notably Airport Commissioner Larry Lichty, have said appearances demand that a new firm be hired. The commission operates independently, but members are appointed by the city board and the board issues bonds for the airport, among other related activities.
Stodola has said -- and repeated today -- that other lawyers in the firm would handle the work. He hasn't said how he'd insure that no benefits from that work flowed to him as a firm partner.. Inevitably,conflicts would be unavoidable. The mayor, for example, has traditionally served as a city goodwill ambassador in seeking new airline service at the airport.
At the Dec. 19 meeting, airport staff will present a report on the issue including how a request for a new legal services provider could be written.
Based on comments today, our observer thinks there's a narrow majority on the seven-member commission in favor of putting out a request for new legal representation.
UPDATE: The vote was 6-1 for the staff to prepare a memo on a transition in legal service, whether now or later or to an in-house counsel. Mark Stodola has sent a copy of his memo in which he said the firm wants the commission to do whatever it deems appropriate, even though 2.5 years remain on the firm's contract and that other lawyers will handle whatever work needs to be performed in the meanwhile. He said he understand there was sentiment to change representation.
Stodola commented, too, that the situation concerning incoming Director Ken Richardson might be more specifically problematic in that he works for New Futures, which receives money for some salaries and programs from the city board. It's true that Richardson will have to recuse from any dealings and an ordinance may be required to allow business with his agency while Richardson continues to serve. It's a problem. It's best that city directors not do business with the city, however indirect. But symbolically, the mayor and an organization as large and political as the Airport Commission presents a larger issue.