After a federal lawsuit was dismissed in December, only one complaint of three remains in litigation, which has cost Surry County taxpayers a little more than $100,000.
Local resident William A. “Billy” Hicks Jr. saw the second of three complaints filed against the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority dismissed on Dec. 9. An earlier complaint in state court was dismissed after Hicks filed that complaint in June 2013.
A Federal Aviation Administration complaint against the authority and airport officials has yet to be disposed.
According to court documents, the authority moved to evict Hicks from his hangar in 2013 and remove him from a waiting list for additional hangar space. Hicks’ lease ended before litigation was complete.
Hicks filed for an injunction barring a termination of the lease in state superior court and later voluntarily dismissed the claim.
However, when Hicks failed to vacate the hangar the authority filed for and received a summary ejectment order in district court. Hicks vacated the property. However, he filed a complaint in federal court which claimed the airport authority’s six-member board had violated his constitutional right to use the largely federally-funded airport.
Hicks was once a member of the entity he sued. He was appointed to the airport authority by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners in 2010 and served in the capacity until 2013.
While serving as a member of the board, according to Hicks’ complaints, Hicks called for a fuel audit at the airport, which was opposed by authority Chairman John Springthorpe. Additionally, Hicks and Springthorpe butted heads regarding who could give flight lessons at the airport.
Hicks claimed he began to be “bullied” by other board members after the disagreements with Springthorpe. That led to his resignation from the authority’s governing board.
He also believes the instances of disagreement led to unfair treatment by the board, which was the rationale for Hick’s federal lawsuit claiming the airport authority had violated his constitutional rights.
According to the federal court order dismissing the case, the board’s action in terminating Hicks’ lease was the result of a March 2013 “overspray” incident which occurred while Hicks was spray-painting one of his planes. The incident left spray-paint on the planes of other tenants.
Though Hicks notes he compensated the other tenants for damages, the authority voted to terminate Hicks’ lease.
The Surry County Fire Marshal also found Hicks to be in violation of various fire codes.
In short, the federal court found Hicks’ constitutional rights were not violated.
The court ruled interactions between members of a public board are not covered by any First Amendment or freedom of speech rights.
“First, it is highly doubtful that Mr. Hicks has a constitutional right as a board member to disagree with other governmental board members,” states the December order dismissing Hicks’ federal lawsuit.
“Second, the complaint itself shows a rational basis for treating Mr. Hicks differently from other tenants with lease violations: he was the only tenant whose violations caused serious property damage to other tenants’ airplanes.”
Hicks had also claimed the authority, in essence, had barred him from using the airport. That equal protection claim under the Fourteenth Amendment and due process allegation was also dismissed by the federal court.
“Indeed, he has not alleged even one instance when he tried to access the airport and was prevented from doing so,” states the opinion.
“In the absence of any factual allegations indicating that the board had an unconstitutional official policy that was the moving force behind the termination of the lease and other disputed actions, the equal protection claims against the Authority are dismissed.”
Springthorpe said the dismissal is what he expected.
“The board is very pleased,” said Springthorpe. “It reflects our view all along. These were frivolous charges that have been levied against the authority.”
With the dismissal of Hicks’ constitutional claims against the airport authority, only one action remains in the matter.
The FAA complaint Hicks filed in May 2015 alleges the airport has committed FAA violations pertaining to the fuel audit which, in part, led to the whole issue.
Hicks complaint also takes issue with many matters regarding the airport’s contracted fixed-base operator, Ra-Tech, such as the bidding process used in hiring the company.
Additionally, the complaint alleges an inappropriate relationship between the airport and Pike Electric Corp. It also claims the airport authority does not hold a deed for some properties included in the $14 million runway extension which has been under way at the airport since work to reroute a section of Holly Springs Church Road began in 2013.
Tax maps available from the county’s tax department indicate all properties necessary for the extension are in the name of the airport authority.
Springthorpe said he’s unaware of how long it will be until the FAA makes a ruling.
“Each side has submitted documents associated with the complaint,” explained Springthorpe. “However, (the FAA) is not bound by any specific timeline.”
Springthorpe went on to say courts had already ruled on the authority’s side in many of the claims made in the FAA complaint.
The airport initially requested about $80,000 in the 2015-16 fiscal year for legal expenses at the airport. Springthorpe and the authority also made an additional request for a little more than $32,000 in the current fiscal year.
Springthorpe, who was away from his office when contacted Tuesday, said he knew legal expenses to be in excess of $100,000 but could not state an exact figure.
He also said it’s likely the county taxpayer will never again see those monies.
“The legal guidance we’ve received is that it’s theoretically possible (to collect legal fees from Hicks),” explained Springthorpe. “It would require us to spend more in legal fees in hopes of recouping the money.”
Springthorpe said he’s not sure it would be appropriate to spend additional dollars in hopes of winning and collecting from Hicks.
Original article can be found here: https://mtairynews.com