Despite Donald Trump’s presidential victory, officials with the state and city of Jackson believe the battle for control of the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers airport will be settled by the courts rather than administratively.
Earlier this year, lawmakers approved legislation that would replace the five-member board of commissioners selected by Jackson officials with a nine-member commission appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor and supervisors in Madison and Rankin counties as well as Jackson officials.
The bill prompted a lawsuit from the Rev. Jeffery Stallworth, a Jackson resident and former airport commissioner. The city of Jackson, along with each of the city council members, later joined Stallworth’s suit as plaintiffs in the federal suit.
In its motion to join the lawsuit, made in June, attorneys for Jackson wrote: “Senate Bill 2162 seeks to ‘take,’ ‘convert’ or otherwise ‘strip’ the City of property rights and municipal purposes.”
“Such arbitrary and capricious actions by the State of Mississippi deprive the City of its property rights without due process or an opportunity to be heard,” the Jackson motion states.
Jacksonians hoping to keep control of the airport in the city’s hands had also held out hope that a Democrat would win the White House and, therefore, appoint the next leader of the Transportation Department, which oversees the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA is the regulatory agency that ultimately approves licenses for airport operators.
Tyrone Hendrix, president of the Jackson City Council, said the city is in a wait-and-see pattern as far as whom Trump will appoint to take over the reigns from Anthony Foxx and Michael Huerta, the transportation secretary and FAA chief respectively. Both are appointees of President Barack Obama.
“It’s going to be a long protracted fight to make sure we maintain control of the airport,” Hendrix told Mississippi Today.
Defendants, who include the three top Republicans at the Capitol — Gov. Phil Bryant, Speaker Philip Gunn and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves — agreed to maintain the status quo for the time being. Spokeswomen for Reeves and Gunn declined to comment, citing the pending the litigation.
This week, Reeves responded to the lawsuit, denying most of the city’s allegations. Bryant’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The FAA has figured prominently in at least one other airport control fight in recent years. In North Carolina, state leaders passed a bill in 2013 to turn the Charlotte-run airport over to the state. Charlotte took the state to court, where the issue remains ensnared in legal limbo. The FAA ruled that the airport would remain under Charlotte’s control until the issue is resolved by the courts.
Christa Fornarotto, an associate administrator for airports with the FAA, wrote the North Carolina’s attorney general and Charlotte’s city manager outlining “concerns” about the state’s airport-transfer bill.
In the letter, Fornarotto said any new sponsor for the airport’s certificate would need to demonstrate that the new entity is legally and financially able to operate the airport. In addition, North Carolina would need to submit an official attorney general’s opinion on the legality of its legislation and “give assurance that it possesses good title for the airport lands in its control” and if not “must give specific assurances to the FAA that good title will be acquired.”
Attorney General Jim Hood’s office is representing several state officials named as defendants in Jackson’s lawsuit, but he has issued no public opinions or made any public statements about the legality of Mississippi’s airport-control bill.
Rachael Ring, a spokeswoman for Hood, said no requests for an Attorney General’s opinion have been made.
Hendrix said he hopes the city’s ownership of the land is enough to stymie the legislation from taking effect. Another Jackson council member, De’Keither Stamps, attended a presidential Transition Roundtable Discussion with members of the incoming Trump Administration at the White House earlier this week.
“Even if you change the president, the precedent that the FAA would be setting would be nationwide,” Stamps said, referring to approval of the Jackson airport transfer. “A precedent like that would affect America in a major way.”
Sen. Josh Harkins, R-Flowood, who sponsored the airport bill in the Legislature, said Trump’s win probably helped the state’s chances of victory, but that he agrees that the courts will ultimately decide the issue.
“My view all along was that the law was on our side. We had the right to do what we did and we would get a ruling from a judge and take that ruling to the FAA,” he said.
The FAA did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.