June 12, 2018 10:29:15 AM
JACKSON -- Lawyers have billed taxpayers more than $400,000 so far in a power struggle over control of the airport in Mississippi's largest city.
The federal court fight is an extension of a bitter legislative debate.
People who say Jackson should maintain control of the airport have accused white suburban Republicans of unlawfully trying to steal an asset controlled by Democratic officials in the majority-black city. Republicans pushing for a new board say the airport should have a regional governing board because it serves a regional customer base.
The Clarion Ledger tallied up the legal expenses for a report published Monday, based on figures provided by both sides.
The city sued in 2016 to block a law Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed removing Jackson's role in appointing the five-member board overseeing Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport. Replacing it would be a new nine-person board, four of whom would be appointed by the governor or his appointees. Jackson's mayor and city council would get one appointment each; suburban Madison and Rankin counties would get one each; and the lieutenant governor would get an appointee.
Jackson and airport officials call the law a hostile takeover.
Republican state Sen. Josh Harkins, who lives in Rankin County and wrote the bill, denied taking anything, saying the capital city would continue to receive all of the tax revenue generated by the airport.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it won't consider approving any change until courts resolve the struggle. No trial date has been set, and legal fees billed by both private and government attorneys continue to climb.
Federal court documents show the private law firm of Butler Snow representing Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, and the Wise, Carter, Child and Caraway law firm representing the one former and seven current lawmakers named in the lawsuit. Phelps Dunbar law firm is representing the board of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority. Smaller law firms also are on the case.
Reeves spokeswoman Laura Hipp said in late May that the state has spent $137,669 on the case.
"The state's role in the legislative process must be defended, and in the end we will win, but in the meantime the lawyers for the city and JMAA continue to get paid," Hipp said.
Jackson Municipal Airport Authority Chief Executive Officer Carl Newman said the authority has spent $272,309 on its lawyers.
"Protecting the assets of JMAA is far from frivolous," Henley said.
He said the state's hiring of outside law firms is "absurd" because state entities could have been represented by the attorney general's office.