City won’t ground airport board members

By Tom Joyce -

Mount Airy officials have decided not to ground two pilots who now represent the city on the local airport’s governing board, which is flying in the face of a legal opinion regarding that group’s makeup.

The Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority contains seven members, including five who are appointed by the county government and two by the city government. The group oversees operations of the airport located in the Holly Springs community.

At present, all five members of the Surry Board of Commissioners are serving as the county’s representatives on the airport board, due to a shakeup in May 2017 when the commissioners opted to take over that function.

The city’s two members on the airport group are not elected officials, and unlike the county’s five representatives are pilots.

“They are volunteers who have served very well and faithfully for a number of years,” City Attorney Hugh Campbell said of Dr. Tom Jackson and Nolan Kirkman.

However, Jackson’s and Kirkman’s involvement has come into question, Campbell added during a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners when the airport board was discussed.

The city attorney explained that as part of a process to receive grant funding for the facility, a former lawyer for the airport had reviewed the seven-member group’s makeup in relation to state statutes.

That lawyer had formed an opinion challenging the qualifications of Kirkman and Jackson to serve on it based on the fact they are not residents of Mount Airy.

“They live in the county, but not the city,” Campbell said.

The same opinion was embraced by an interim attorney for the airport, Dan Barrett, who is no longer serving in that role, which has since been assumed by County Attorney Ed Woltz.

In a recent letter to the city attorney, Woltz said both state law and a contract signed by Mount Airy and Surry County in 2010 imply that the two parties are to appoint airport board members from their respective jurisdictions. However, the issue is somewhat vague since the contract stipulates that all members must live in Surry County.

In addition, the wording of state law refers to two or more “municipalities” entering into agreements or joint ventures with each other, and not city or county entities specifically. As defined in state law, Campbell believes a municipality can be a city or county.

Another factor further clouding the issue in Surry’s case, the city attorney said, is that Mount Airy residents also are county residents.

So in entertaining a request by Surry officials to consider appointing two new members who are in-city residents, Campbell told the Mount Airy commissioners that the legal implications seem far from clear-cut.

“It’s not black and white,” he said, mentioning that while the spirit of the law might dictate members from inside the city, there is a gray area involved.

“I think it’s a decision for this board as to how you want to interpret that,” Campbell advised. “In my view, it’s ambiguous — it’s a policy decision.”

After listening to their attorney, the city commissioners decided in a 5-0 vote to keep Jackson and Kirkman as Mount Airy’s representatives on the airport group. The insights they bring to that role as pilots was cited along with their years of fine service.

Commissioner Jon Cawley pointed out that knowledge accompanying the pilots’ presence on the board had led to the awarding of a non-matching grant to the airport rather than one requiring local matching funds. This was a direct benefit of their service, Cawley said.

However, there were some reservations, by both Commissioner Shirley Brinkley and Mayor David Rowe.

They expressed concern about the membership issue possibly causing problems with matters such as grant applications.

“That would be the only concern I would have,” the mayor said.

Brinkley said she wanted to avoid any legal problems with agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration, should the airport need its approval for projects down the road.

“I don’t want to stifle what could happen,” she said.

While saying he couldn’t fully answer such questions, Campbell thinks a major court decision would be required to prevent Jackson and Kirkman from serving, should this be challenged by someone.

“It would take a declaratory-judgment action in Superior Court.”

By Tom Joyce

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.