Paulding commissioners will withhold federal funds from the county airport authority until a controversial December land swap is reversed.
Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to delay transfer of $770,000 in Federal Aviation Administration funds — to reimburse the airport board for past environmental studies — until 163 acres transferred in a late December deal is returned so it can defend against a city of Atlanta lawsuit.
Atlanta, which sold the county the land in 2007 for the airport’s construction, filed a lawsuit in Paulding Superior Court in late June alleging the county breached the sales contract because of the county airport board’s five-year effort to recruit a commercial passenger airline.
The lawsuit alleges then-County Airport Department director Blake Swafford in 2007 verbally promised Silver Comet Field would only serve general aviation uses and not compete with Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport for passenger service.
Commissioner Vernon Collett said the return of the land is designed to make the city of Atlanta “feel more comfortable and, hopefully, they will not have a reason for a lawsuit.”
“Nobody on this board wanted to keep the money from getting to the airport, but we need the (land) back to better our position against the city of Atlanta,” Collett said.
Commission Chairman Dave Carmichael said he disagreed with the action.
“I don’t ... think it’s legally grounded,” he said. “I’m in full support of receiving the money that has already been spent.”
In a statement, FAA officials only said a project must be completed with the grant funding in a timely manner according to the agency’s regulations and guidelines. The statement did not specify how or when grants should be distributed after they are given to a sponsor.
Paulding County Airport Authority Chairman Boyd Austin did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The authority since 2013 has sought the airport’s federal redesignation as a commercial facility to allow passenger airline service. Opponents have ranged from a group of local residents, who have filed numerous legal challenges, to the city of Atlanta which sees the authority’s action as impeding the development of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta airport.
A 2014 intergovernmental agreement which transferred operational control of the airport from the county government to the Paulding County Airport Authority also required the county to transfer 163 acres on the facility’s site to the authority.
Four of the five county commissioners, who also filed legal challenges, stalled the transfer of the airport land in 2015 and 2016 to help protect the county against legal action from Atlanta, Commissioner Vernon Collett said Tuesday.
However, former county chairman David Austin — who supported the commercial designation — signed a deed to transfer the land on his final day in office Dec. 30. Austin, a member of both boards, maintained he signed at the request of airport attorneys to avoid a potential airport authority lawsuit against the commission for not transferring the land.
The FAA in March ordered the county and airport authority to file a joint corrective action plan to finalize the transfer. Commissioners then delayed action on accepting the FAA grants until the airport board approved the joint plan.
The board approved the joint plan June 29, and commissioners voted to accept the funds on June 30 in a special called meeting.
The county commission’s Tuesday vote followed a tense work session earlier the same day in which commissioners and two anti-commercialization activists accused Carmichael of seeking to keep information about the lawsuit from the other four commissioners who oppose commercialization for more than a week after he was served notice of it.
Carmichael said he did not see the same urgency other commissioners did about a lawsuit which needed a response in 30 days. He said commissioners still had three weeks to respond by the July 26 deadline after they received it.
He said he forgot to give County Attorney Lani Skipper a copy of the lawsuit June 30 as he dealt with last-minute details before going on a planned family vacation the following day.
Carmichael also cited the often complex nature of his job, and said he did not have time to read through the lawsuit until he was on vacation.
“I had no intention of not communicating with you,” he said.
But commissioners said they were “disappointed” in Carmichael giving the airport authority’s attorney and members notice about the lawsuit days before notifying them July 6.
Commissioner Todd Pownall said it “put me in a position” of not trusting Carmichael.
Commissioner Ron Davis said knowledge of the lawsuit might have changed his June 30 vote on accepting the funding. Collett said he believed Carmichael held the information past June 30 to gain approval of the FAA funds.
Collett also said he was “disappointed” Carmichael was the commission’s chief executive officer but sought to notify the airport authority first.
Activists Cathy Helms and Sue Wilkins, who have led a group of residents opposing the airport plan, told the commission the action ended any trust they had that he was trying to be fair in his treatment of both the commission and authority.
State law makes the commission chairman an automatic member of the airport authority, but Carmichael was an appointed member when the authority voted to seek commercial status in 2012.
Helms also said delaying notification endangered the county in the lawsuit because it narrowed the time frame for a commission response, which is due July 26.