Habeeb sees court OK’ing closure of 61 airporty

Published 12:00 am Thursday, November 15, 2001

[11/15/01]Former South Ward Alderman Sam Habeeb said Wednesday after oral arguments before the Supreme Court that he feels “confident” that the court will rule in favor of the city and allow the municipal airport on U.S. 61 South to be closed.

Habeeb, who along with former Mayor Robert Walker, voted to close the municipal airport in 1998, which led to three and a half years of litigation, attended the pleadings before the court. Attorneys representing both sides of the sometimes-heated debate presented their arguments concerning the closing of Vicksburg Municipal Airport and the funding of the regional airport in Mound.

“I think once the Supreme Court reads the record they’ll see the foolishness of this,” said Habeeb, an attorney in private practice before being elected to represent the South Ward in 1996. He now works as an attorney for the Mississippi Tax Commission.

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With 2,500 pages of testimony from the 11-day trial in 1999, plus the subsequent appeals from attorneys for the City of Vicksburg and attorneys for 18 local businessmen, it could be months before a decision is handed down. Both sides presented many of the same arguments heard at that trial.

“The city had the authority to act when they voted to close this airport,” said John Maxey, a Jackson attorney representing the city. “The problem created is not only one of separation of power… but it also created a very practical problem.”

Attorneys representing the city have argued since litigation began in 1998 that the Board of Mayor and Aldermen had discretionary power to vote to close the Vicksburg Municipal Airport and that the vote was not subject to review by the courts. It was in March of that year, a month after the city board voted 2-1 to close the municipal airport, that the lawsuit was filed in Warren County Circuit Court seeking an injunction to stop that closing.

“It’s part of our checks and balances,” said Ken Harper, a Vicksburg attorney representing the businessmen who support keeping the municipal airport open. “There’s an old saying, You can’t fight City Hall’ and that’s basically what they’re saying.”

In what Harper has labeled the “great airport war,” attorneys also presented arguments over the the continued funding of the Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport in Mound through an airport authority established by the city.

Warren County Circuit Judge Frank Vollor ruled in 1999 that an airport authority was needed for a Mississippi entity to fund an airport in another state and that the 54-year-old city airport remain open until an “adequate” replacement is provided.

“If it is so much bigger and so much better and so much nicer, then why are they trying to force this airport closed to force traffic over there?” Harper asked.

Attorneys for the city appealed Vollor’s ruling that has kept the city airport open. Separately, the plaintiffs’ attorneys appealed the creation of the airport authority. That appeal was thrown out by Circuit Judge Isadore Patrick, which led to Wednesday’s action before the Supreme Court.

The two pleadings were combined by the Supreme Court in May and both were heard at the same time.

“The city put forth an airport authority and the same party who argued for it opposes it,” Maxey said.

Harper had argued during the initial trial before Vollor that an airport authority was needed to put a legal buffer between the city and the airport. He has since argued that the type of authority created by the city in 1999 and the county in 2000 to funnel funds to VTR was not the right type.

Mississippi law allows for the creation of an airport authority by government entities or a joint regional airport authority. Harper has said that a regional authority is the appropriate type for the joint venture between Vicksburg, Warren County, Tallulah and Madison Parish.

Each entity owns a fourth of VTR and pays operating expenses not covered by revenue. Both the city and the county stopped funding the airport after litigation first began, although Warren County has never been a party to the suits.

“It is supposed to be tough to cross state line because you’re talking about giving tax dollars to be subject to the laws of another state,” Harper said. “Who are they trying to protect? The taxpayers or the three people in City Hall?”

The city and county resumed funding to VTR after creating the two airport authorities. The airport has had financial problems since litigation began, including nearly running out of fuel and problems making payroll.

“I think we had ample reason to fund (VTR) including the safety (of VKS),” Habeeb said.

Walker was seeking his third term as mayor, but was defeated by political newcomer Lawrence Leyens in June. Walker is also named in the suit, but was not at the pleadings.

North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, who was elected to her third term in June, had voted against closing the municipal airport.