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"Yuma Airport Authority faces anger, lawsuits"



Sunday, May 20, 2012

Airport Authority faces anger, lawsuits
BY JOYCE LOBECK
The Yuma (AZ) Sun 


The Yuma Airport Authority has hit some rough flying as it deals with
lawsuits, simmering unrest in the general aviation community and a vigilant
website that puts an online spotlight on airport activities.

Joe Gamez said he founded YumaAirportWatchdog.org out of concerns that the
airport board and staff were giving preferential treatment to Million Air,
currently the airport's sole fixed-base operator, to the detriment of
another tenant. He added that he is just trying to bring transparency to the
airport's activities.

Meanwhile, airport director Craig Williams expressed concern about what he
sees as "a campaign of intimidation and harassment" against board members
and airport staff, both at meetings and in their private lives.

"There's a few people with a lot of animosity toward the board and me
personally," he said.

In the latest development, the Yuma Police Department was called to two
recent board meetings after conflict arose among Williams and a couple of
general aviation pilots.

Police were called to the board's April meeting after Gamez reported he had
been assaulted by Williams, alleging that Williams grabbed his video camera
and threw it at him.

YPD spokesman Clint Norred confirmed that a misdemeanor assault
investigation has been sent to the city prosecutor for review. Williams
denies he threw the camera, saying it fell as he tried to return it to
Gamez. No one was cited.

Gamez regularly videotapes the board meetings and posts them on his website.
Williams said he mistakenly thought the taping was limited only to the
actual meeting and had reached for the camera to ensure Gamez was complying
when the incident occurred.

Gamez vowed to press charges "to the fullest extent of the law" against
Williams for assault.

Police also were called to the board's March meeting to escort private pilot
Paul Rachels from the terminal after he refused to leave his seat on the
north side of the board room, which a new policy has reserved for staff
members and board guests, Williams said.

Williams later explained that the new policy was adopted for safety reasons
because of the number of people who are taping the board meetings. There was
some question, though, whether the new policy had officially been adopted by
the board at the time Rachels was evicted from the meeting.

As for the watchdog website and the airport's detractors, Williams said he
fears an escalation of activities against the Airport Authority.

"The board is disappointed by the continuing character attacks on YCAA board
members, staff and airport tenants. Until now the board has ignored the
matter in the hope that Mr. Gamez would tire of his personal vendetta.
However, due to his increasing vitriol and Mr. Gamez's recent practice of
sending venomous email blasts, the airport plans to examine what avenues are
available to victims of cyberstalking."

Gamez countered that he and his supporters are not against the Airport
Authority or its efforts to pursue economic development. However, he said,
he and others have concerns that "a lot of maneuvering is not entirely
aboveboard" and he is trying to bring transparency to the issues surrounding
the public entity that receives public dollars.

The website also is highly critical of Francis Freeman Jr., owner of Million
Air, which became the sole fixed-base operator at the airport after buying
out the fueling operation of CareFlight, for which Gamez had been the
manager.

Freeman has filed a series of defamation lawsuits against the website and
Gamez in several states. Recently, the judge hearing the case in Cuyahoga
County, Ohio, granted a summary judgment against Gamez and scheduled a
hearing on July 13 to set damages. Gamez is appealing the ruling.

Lawsuits in five other states are pending the outcome of Freeman's lawsuit
in U.S. District Court in Arizona. Gamez said he expects the Arizona lawsuit
to go to a jury trial in the fall.

"The Yuma Airport Watchdog was conceived as a result of Yuma airport
director Craig Williams attempting to unceremoniously evict Garza Aviation
off the airfield to protect Million Air, a clear violation of ethics and FAA
exclusive use provisions," Gamez said. Since then, he said, the website has
uncovered other evidence of preferential treatment for Million Air.

Williams countered by noting that the airport had gone through a number of
FBOs in the past few years and that Million Air has made a substantial
investment in and commitment to Yuma International Airport.

Garza Aviation has filed a lawsuit against the Airport Authority, claiming
breach of contract. Business owner Gil Garza had been given a discounted
"incubation" rate on his rent to encourage the development of his aircraft
maintenance business. Airport officials, however, said he violated the terms
of his lease and threatened to evict him a year ago when Garza began
providing ground-handling services for a client, services that previously
had been provided by Million Air as the airport's full-service FBO.

Yuma County Superior Court Judge John Nelson granted an injunction in August
2011, putting the eviction on hold. Since then, there have been a number of
court actions, including denial of a request by the Airport Authority for
dismissal of the case.

A trial for Garza's lawsuit has been scheduled to begin July 17 in Nelson's
courtroom. Yuma County Board of Supervisors is also named as a defendant
because the county leases the airport property to the Airport Authority.

Another lawsuit was brought against the Airport Authority by Tim Berger of
DBT Yuma LLC, doing business as Lux Air, which had been an FBO at the
airport. On Oct. 23, 2009, Lux Air was evicted from the airport by armed
security guards, its assets seized and the locks changed, Berger's lawsuit
states. At the time, Lux Air was behind on its rent. But Lux was always in
arrears, the lawsuit states, "and the Airport Authority always acquiesced to
these late payments."

In his lawsuit, Berger is asking for $9.5 million in lost assets plus
compensation for damages the company suffered through the forfeiture of its
30-year lease. During one court proceeding, his attorney, Daryl Williams,
said he thought the case involved a $20 million liability by the Airport
Authority.

A status conference for the case has been scheduled for June 11 in Nelson's
courtroom.

Airport officials said they couldn't comment on the two lawsuits because of
the ongoing litigation.

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