Friday, January 23, 2015

Airport official says suit has no merit • Mount Airy-Surry County Airport (KMWK), Mount Airy, North Carolina

The chairman of the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority has responded to a federal lawsuit filed against that group by a former member who is a local businessman and pilot, saying it lacks merit.

That individual, William Alfred “Billy” Hicks Jr., alleges in the suit that the authority — the governing body for the local airport at Holly Springs — acted improperly in forcing him off the seven-member board and evicting him from his hangar there.

The lawsuit filed earlier this month claims this violated Hicks’ due-process rights and equal protection under the Constitution, given that Mount Airy-Surry County Airport is a government-funded facility dedicated to serving the public without bias.

Hicks, the owner of H & H Auto Sales in Mount Airy and Galax, Va., as well as two airplanes, is contending that his treatment by the authority was a direct result of his support for another local pilot who offered flight instruction at the airport.

The governing board sought to prevent Michael Venable from providing lessons because it was taking significant business away from an in-house pilot school at the facility — leading to an earlier lawsuit filed on behalf of Venable over the blocked access.

Hicks’ suit claims that as a board member he opposed efforts to bar Venable’s flight instruction, which led to the alleged retaliation by other members, all of whom are named as defendants.

Charges “Baseless”

But John Springthorpe III, the authority chairman who initially could not be reached for comment Thursday about the lawsuit, responded Friday, saying “those allegations are baseless.”

Springthorpe added that the issues raised in the suit concerning authority members’ actions are without merit. “And we are going to pursue it vigorously with our response in the court system,” he added of their position.

The authority chairman also responded to the group’s supposed mistreatment of Venable regarding his flight-training operation — the apparent heart of the matter involving Hicks.

“We felt like what the airport board did was done openly and we were enforcing a set of rules that had been in place for many, many years,” Springthorpe said.

“Mike was not singled out, nor was Billy singled out.”

Hicks has said that after he supported Venable being able to offer pilot lessons at the airport, he was advised by Springthorpe and others to resign from the seven-member authority and he did so rather than being kicked off the board. That led to his replacement by Dr. Thomas Jackson last February.

The plaintiff also said airport leaders terminated the lease on his hangar there and removed his name from the waiting list for a second one due to the backing of Venable. The grounds for that termination involved the uncovering of alleged safety violations at his hangar, which Hicks claims also exist among other hangars without similar mitigation.

Springthorpe also took issue with that Friday.

“Sometimes in this capacity you deal with people who feel like the rules shouldn’t be applied to them,” the board chairman said, “and that’s unfortunate.”

And the fact that the airport or its personnel have been the subject of multiple lawsuits in recent years reflects the trend of increased litigation in today’s society, Springthorpe continued.

“What this reveals is that the legal system allows you to sue people for any reason, no matter if it is the truth.”

Springthorpe further indicated that the lawsuit activity is an example of the court system being used as “a delaying tactic to evade justice.”

He complained Friday that much of his time as chairman in recent years has been tied up with defending the airport leadership from legal claims that involve two individuals.

Springthorpe thinks the authority has been on the right side concerning lawsuit issues raised, even while acknowledging that the action brought by Venable ended in an undisclosed settlement. “Our insurance company chose to settle,” he explained.

Hicks’ suit seeks unspecified damages to be set by a jury and for his hangar lease privileges to be restored, among other requests to the court. 

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