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Thursday May 28th, 2015 12:13PM

Habersham airport authority threatened with lawsuit

By Rob Moore Reporter
CLARKESVILLE - A change in management at the Habersham County Airport has upset many in the local aviation community.

At this week's Habersham County Airport Authority meeting, some of those who are upset spoke out against the change and the authority members who initiated it.

County officials had to bring in additional chairs as more than three dozen people attended the meeting.

Habersham County businessman Peter Moncure, who has an aircraft based at the airport, said he pays about $750,000 annually in salaries, with all of his sales occurring outside Habersham County.

Moncure classified his airplane as "absolutely essential to my business."

Moncure discussed the Appling County Airport in Baxley, and the airport in Toccoa, praising Fixed Based Operator James Tatum for his hospitality to every aircraft that visits the Habersham airfield.

"That is something you will not again soon find," Moncure said.

He termed the pending termination of Tatum's contract as FBO as "economic suicide" and "morally repugnant," telling authority members, "you must be making the choice based on economic grounds."

Aircraft owner and former Habersham County employee Barry Church asked Authority Chairman Stephen Ward several questions, with the first being whether requests for proposals for the FBO services were properly advertised in the county's legal organ.

"They were sent to The Northeast Georgian," Ward said.

"Were they advertised?" Church asked. "Answer my question - please!"

After Church persisted, Ward said, "Mr. Church, I don't have to answer your questions."

That's when things deteriorated.

"Well, had you rather answer it to this group or to an attorney?" Church said. "Make your choice right now. I'm asking a question."

Ward replied, "I'll take my chances with the attorney."

"Very well," Church said, continuing with a battery of questions.

Among those was an assertion that the authority, by its own minutes, conducted business illegally in December 2013.

"On Dec. 2, 2013, your minutes reflect that this board, after adjourning the meeting, conducted business and took a vote by email on a proposition made by [Authority Member Mike Moore, who currently serves as interim airport manager]," Church said. "Gentlemen, my question is if y'all are doing stuff outside of a public meeting and you're smart enough that you put it in your own minutes as you did, what are you doing outside the public meeting that you don't put in the minutes?"

Church then called for the resignations of the authority, in total, during the meeting.

He also took on the issue of the non-advertised FBO request for proposals (RFPs).

"Based on the fact that that was not advertised in the legal organ of Habersham County, every one of those contracts should be null and void and that you go out for another bid after it's properly done."

RFPs received by the deadline and opened earlier in the meeting were from Blue Sky Aviation, Foothills Aviation (proposed name), and Lanier Flight Center. Only the name was read during the meeting, and the RFP documents left the meeting in the custody of the authority chairman.

Asked during the meeting who would serve on the committee to review FBO proposals, Ward said he, Moore, Economic Development Director J.R. Charles and at least two others would handle that task.

Also addressing the authority during its meeting were David Bristol and Janice Griggs.

Bristol said he began flying at Habersham County Airport in 1984, taking his first lesson six years later.

"I just upgraded to captain with U.S. Airways Group," Bristol said.

Bristol praised Tatum, saying he helped him learn to fly, and supported him in his decision in 2000 to become an airline pilot.

"He's kept aviation affordable," Bristol said. "I know one of those bids is another company that is at another airport and to go rent one of their planes with an instructor right now is over double what it is to rent Mr. Tatum's plane with an instructor. This is not the same area as Gainesville, Ga., or Atlanta, Ga."

Griggs asked if there is a written list of duties of the airport manager as opposed to the FBO.

"The minutes reflect that Mike Moore was elected as the interim airport manager, and those duties were to include being a liaison between the pilots and the authority, as well as to do routine sweeps for any maintenance issues that he saw - any issues that he thought might cause a hazard at the airport, and to suggest or recommend what needed to be done at that time," Ward said. "Those are the duties of the interim airport manager."

Griggs asked if the authority is interested in working with the pilots and airport community in harmony, rather than bickering.

"The authority would absolutely love for it to be like that," Ward said. "That would be fantastic, and would make everything run a lot smoother if we could all be on the same page."

As Ward attempted to announce the date of the next meeting as June 2, Authority Member Jay Hughes made a motion to begin holding the group's meetings back at the airport.

Ward protested, saying, "This number of people will not fit out there."

Authority Member Joe Elam seconded Hughes' motion so the issue could be discussed.

"First thing is if we don't have these meetings at the airport, there won't be a guarantee that we are regularly on the property," Hughes said. "Also, it allows us to do an immediate inspection every time we are there. We can see the conditions for ourselves."

Hughes asserted that holding meetings at the airport presented members with the opportunity not only to look at the conditions, but to talk with individuals about what's going on and how they feel.

"I think it allows us to do our job more effectively," Hughes said.

When it came to a vote, however, Ward and Moore didn't agree, resulting in a 2-2 vote.

The group agreed to reconsider the matter at its June 2 meeting if all five members are present. That meeting still will be held in the Habersham County Administrative Building (former courthouse) in Clarkesville.
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