City named in airport lawsuit

By Tom Joyce -

The city of Mount Airy has been named as a defendant in a federal court lawsuit involving the local airport, which has been filed on behalf of a father and son who are pilots.

Much of the 46-page complaint details ongoing problems plaintiffs Dennis Dwain Angel and his son, Wyatt Dwain Angel, have encountered at Mount Airy-Surry County Airport in recent years.

These problems particularly have surrounded two members of the airport authority board that oversees the facility, Dr. Thomas Jackson and Nolan Kirkman.

Ongoing disputes between the Angels and the airport leadership led to the two local residents losing hangar space for their aircraft and being dropped from a hangar waiting list last October, according to the lawsuit.

This has caused hardship for the Angel family, states the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina through its division in Winston-Salem.

Jackson and Kirkman are named as defendants along with the entire seven-member Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority; the city and county governments; and John Spane, part-owner and manager of Ra-Tech Aviation, the fixed-based operator of the airport.

City appointments targeted

Mount Airy’s involvement in the lawsuit stems from its appointment of Jackson and Kirkman as the municipality’s two representatives on the airport governing board, even though they do not reside in the city limits. The other five members are county appointees, which in May 2017 became the entire Surry Board of Commissioners due to a shakeup.

City officials have discussed the appropriateness of their appointments of Jackson and Kirkman as recently as July, when after a lengthy discussion on the matter the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners voted 5-0 to maintain that arrangement.

Board members’ thinking at the time was that Jackson and Kirkman have served faithfully on the airport board for years, and also bring special insights to that role due to being pilots.

City Attorney Hugh Campbell also said in July that legal provisions are vague concerning whether it is lawful for the two to serve as Mount Airy’s representatives. For one thing, a 2010 contract between the city and county implies that the two parties are to appoint airport board members from their respective jurisdictions — while also stipulating that all members must live in Surry County.

In addition, Campbell said 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, the attorney believes a municipality can be a city or county.

“It’s not black and white,” Campbell added in July.

Lawsuit challenge

However, the Angels’ lawsuit takes a different position.

It seeks a declaratory judgment from the court related to the defendants’ alleged failure to comply with North Carolina law by appointing members to the airport group who are not municipal residents, and to recognize this as a requirement.

The lawsuit says this is mandated for the receipt of federal grant money for the airport, which is supported by both state and federal funding.

In it, the Angels are seeking monetary damages for alleged “unconstitutional retaliation” by the airport leadership against the plaintiffs involving their constitutionally protected speech, deprivation of their airport use and other issues. The speech aspect includes Dennis Dwain Angel once circulating a petition calling for authority members’ removal.

The lawsuit claims the retaliation also stems from the Angels’ failure to support the authority in matters related to two previous lawsuits against it, filed by Billy Hicks, another local aircraft owner, and Mike Venable, a flight instructor.

Not replacing Jackson and Kirkman with residents of the city has “permitted Jackson and Kirknan’s long history with Hicks, Venable and openly hostile position with (the) plaintiffs to poison the airport authority and the new board members (the county commissioners),” the suit claims.

Allowing Jackson and Kirkman to remain on the airport board has resulted in “continued defamatory conduct, obstruction of justice, retaliation and violation of plaintiffs’ due process rights,” it adds.

A comment was sought this week from Campbell, the city attorney, in reaction to the Angels’ lawsuit.

“I don’t have a comment at this point,” he responded. “I am still reviewing the complaint and have made no determination about the next steps.”

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.