At Odds

By ANTHONY WARREN,

City taxpayers bear burden of state’s JMAA takeover attempt

The state’s efforts to take over the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport are being funded in part by the same residents who oppose it.

Despite Jackson’s overwhelming opposition to the state’s planned takeover of Jackson-Evers, residents and businesses in the city by default are having to help pay legal fees for Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, one of the defendants in the takeover appeal.

Meanwhile, the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority (JMAA), which is self-funded, has had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of its own to fight off the state.

In 2016, the Mississippi Legislature approved SB 2162, a measure to do away with JMAA and seize Jackson-Evers.

JMAA, the city of Jackson, and resident Jeffrey Stallworth filed an appeal in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi that same year.

Since then, both sides have racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.

To date, expenses for Reeves’ office total $168,622. The lieutenant governor is being represented by attorneys from two law firms, Wise Carter and Butler Snow who charge between $175 and $375 an hour, Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said.

Through May 15, the most recent data available, JMAA has amassed $272,309 in legal fees.

The authority is being represented by retired Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Fred Banks and Phelps Dunbar law firm, according to data retrieved in an open record request.

Hourly fees for the airport were not immediately available. 

Since the airport is self-funded, taxpayers are not footing JMAA’s legal expenses.

However, the virtue of paying state sales tax and state income tax, residents and businesses in Jackson are helping support the state’s efforts.

“Unfortunately, the taxpayers are being forced to pay for … this frivolous lawsuit brought by the city and JMAA,” Hipp said in a statement. “The state’s role in the legislative process must be defended, and in the end, we will win.”

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said the suit is anything but frivolous, and argues the state’s attempted takeover does a “disservice to the city of Jackson and to the taxpayers.”

“The state has identified the value in the Jackson airport and is attempting to strip this resource from the city,” he said. “We will continue to stand on the premise of this case … and we’ll fight it to the bitter end.”

The airport sits on about 3,300 acres in Rankin County, just south of the busy Lakeland Drive corridor. It is bordered by Airport Road and the nearly finished East Metro Parkway.

Airport property includes about 1,200 acres of undeveloped land, including 800 that was recently opened for development with the completion of a major section of the parkway.

Gov. Phil Bryant, who was also named as a defendant in the case, is being represented by the Mississippi attorney general’s office, meaning there are no additional costs for taxpayers, according to Bryant Director of Communications Clay Chandler.

 

SB 2162 was authored by Sens. Josh Harkins, Dean Kirby, Philip Moran, Chris Caughman and Nickey Browning.

Harkins, the principal author, as well as the Mississippi Legislature, have been named as defendants in the case. It was not known who was representing Harkins or the legislature at press time.

The law was slated to take affect on July 1, 2016.

Under the bill, JMAA would be abolished and replaced with a nine-member regional panel with members appointed by the state, county and city officials.

By contrast, JMAA is governed by a five-member panel with all the appointees tapped by the mayor and approved by the city council.

The measure was temporarily blocked by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is now being blocked by the courts.

The case has been in the discovery phase for months.

Attorneys for the airport have been working to determine the motives behind the takeover and demanded that state officials involved in the passage of 2162 turn over all correspondence related to the bill’s passage. JMAA is also seeking testimony from three staffers in the governor’s office as it relates to the measure.

Federal Magistrate Keith Ball ruled that all communications, e-mails, texts and the like between the governor and third parties regarding the bill had to be released. However, any correspondence between Bryant, his staffers and lawmakers could remain confidential.

Further Ball ordered that the staffers, policy advisors Joey Songy, Bobby Morgan and Alice Perry could be compelled to give testimony.

Both decisions were appealed by Bryant. District Judge Carlton Reeves recently affirmed Ball’s ruling that the witnesses had to testify, saying in a September 10 order that the individuals “possess firsthand knowledge about the legislation at the heart of the lawsuit.”