JACKSON The Federal Aviation Administration, through policy changes, has side-stepped its role in the battle for the Jackson municipal airport, leaving the decision up to a federal court instead.
“The determination of whether to seek a new applicant for airport sponsorship is a state or local decision,” the new policy, published June 6 in the Federal Register, states. “The FAA expects that all disputes about whether to change airport sponsorship and/or operating authority will be resolved through a legally binding agreement between the parties involved in the dispute or a final, non-reviewable legal decision.”
The FAA’s main role in a transfer of authority has been to grant an operating certificate to one party or the other, as it has done in other airport battles like in Charlotte, N.C. Under the prior policy, the granting of the certificate had a lot to do with who owned the property, and at the moment, all of the land, except for a few outlying plots, belongs to the City of Jackson. Not the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority, Rankin County, the State of Mississippi or even Hinds County, but the City of Jackson.
Dr. Rosie Pridgen, the chairwoman of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s Board of Commissioners told an assembled press group June 14 that the board would not bend to the will of Senate Bill 2162 and that they were ready for the legal battle to come.
“We commend the FAA for making its position crystal-clear,” Pridgen said of the FAA policy change. “The JMAA board of commissioners was not consulted, did not and will not give consent. The JMAA board vehemently opposes any transfer of the operating airport certificate.”
The policy shift means that the impending lawsuit between the City of Jackson, the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority and the State is the central battleground, rather than just the prelude to a federal determination.
The City of Jackson leadership, both the city council and the mayor, met last week with the JMAA in one of the rarest of meeting maneuvers: a concurrent executive session by two public bodies. First, the city council recognized the JMAA board as being present and with a full quorum and then invited Pridgen to sit with the council as an equal participant. Then both parties entered into an executive session with each other, telling the public that it was to discuss litigation about the airport.
It was a rare sight, so much so that even Mayor Tony Yarber said he had never seen it before.
“So what you are seeing is collaboration between the City and its agency,” Yarber said at the press event on June 14. “We believe that we will be successful. It is going to take time, like everything else that is going on in this city. We are battling this uphill battle, but we believe if we are resilient we will be fine.”
Pridgen said in response to questions from the press that they did not have a date planned for filing the lawsuit or even wanted to release the venue for the litigation. “It will be before July 1,” Pridgen said. “We will share that information when we are filing. But it is on the way. At this point I would not like to divulge.”
The FAA change means that the ownership of the land and the control of the airport now reside with the court that the JMAA files the lawsuit in.
Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said that the lawyers he had spoken with said it would be a matter of “enforceability” of the law and, again, that Jackson owns the land that the airport sits on.
“We think we are going to win in court,” Horhn said. “When we get to the FAA, and they ask the State of Mississippi, ‘do you own this property? Is this something that you have clear title to?’ We think that those issues, in the judiciary, when it comes up we will win there.”
“At the end of the day, I think the question of ownership is going to be critical in this discussion. We think that we can clearly show that it is an illegal taking,” Horhn added.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, stood next to his colleague and recalled the long fight and failure to kill the bill in the Legislature before it hit the governor’s desk.
Republican lawmakers from outside the capital city announced in January a plan to take control of the Jackson airport.
“And we can do nothing else than to stand up for our rights, to stand up for our city, to stand up for our property, and we are going to do that to the very, very end,” Blount said. “We are committed, we remain committed, and we are optimistic because we believe that the ground that we stand on is in the city of Jackson and controlled by the City of Jackson.”
Sen. Sollie Norwood, D-Jackson, recalled the struggles of black people over the years to maintain their ownership over property in Mississippi, comparing the Jackson airport takeover to a new form of seizure.
“Back in the day if they wanted something they simply decided they would take it from us,” Norwood said. “Many of us back in those days couldn’t read or write so what they did was they just decided to take it.” He said that the powers-that-be’s new method is, “We will put it into law, and we will take it anyway.”
During the press conference, Pridgen pointed to tables covered in petitions the JMAA and community organizations of citizens had gathered against SB 2162. “These petitions are physical demonstrations of that kind of support,” Pridgen said. “Again, however, I caution that the effort to save Jackson’s airports is not over.”
Citizens can still sign the petition, located at JMAAWorks.com, along with a copy of the FAA policy.
As of press time, on June 14, neither the JMAA nor the City of Jackson had filed a lawsuit. Jeffery Stallworth, the former JMAA commissioner and now the pastor of Word and Worship Church in Jackson, has filed the only court challenge so far. No other parties have claimed affiliation with Stallworth.
"Mr. Stallworth decided to file his lawsuit against the hostile takeover of Jackson's airports as a private resident and citizen of Jackson, Mississippi, without prior consultation with JMAA,” a representative from the JMAA told the Jackson Free Press on April 28. “Mr. Stallworth neither requested nor received any assistance or advice from JMAA or anyone affiliated with JMAA."
Email city reporter Tim Summers, Jr. at [email protected] Read more about the battle for the airport at jfp.ms/airport.