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State exonerates airport commission

By By JONATHAN CLAYBORNE
News Editor
An official with the state Division of Aviation essentially cleared the Warren Field Airport Commission of wrongdoing in a Feb. 20 report, though the official did make some recommendations, responding to a complaint by the fixed base operator of Warren Field Airport.
The DOA and the Federal Aviation Administration have completed an investigation into allegations of noncompliance with FAA rules. The allegations were made by Jerry Toms, fixed base operator, according to the report, which was authored by John Caldwell, airport project manager with DOA, a division of the N.C. Department of Transportation.
Future FAA funding for the airport could have been endangered if the state had substantiated the compliance claims. In January, Kathleen Bergen, a public affairs manager for the FAA in Atlanta, Ga., said the state decides how to distribute federal funds for general aviation airports; she added that an airport operator with a compliance complaint may appeal to the FAA if there is no resolution of the problem at the state level. An airport must meet certain compliance standards to receive federal grants, she said.
In the report, Caldwell writes that "there appears to be no airport compliance violation on the part of the Warren Field Airport Commission," the public body responsible for overseeing the airport. The commission's members are appointed by the Washington City Council and the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners. The airport is owned jointly by the city and county.
However, the report indicates that an examination of whether the commission extended to Toms all assurances made by the commission is ongoing.
The report, which pares down and basically addresses five complaints issued by Toms, also recommends that the commission adopt a set of airport operating rules and minimum standards and that both parties settle their differences at the local level.
Regarding the complaints, which range from claims of economic discrimination to disparities in rent charged for hangars, the report either states that no proof of the claims has been offered or there is little evidence to support the claims.
Report in hand, officials involved in the investigation met last week with local officials, including Earl Tetterton, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, and Washington Mayor Stewart Rumley, according to Bryan Ross, chairman of the airport commission.
The report exonerates the commission, Ross said.
The commission has given Toms "a 90-day window" in which to pay past-due rent, Ross said.
According to Carol Williams, finance director for the City of Washington and clerk to the airport commission, Toms owes $9,450 in rent. Toms' lease agreement with the commission allows him to use a corporate hangar occupied by his private business, East Carolina Helicopters. The amount owed does not include overdue calculations of money for fuel flow, Ross said.
As fixed base operator, Toms sells fuel for the airport.
Contacted by telephone Tuesday, Toms said the rent the commission says he owes is "a legal issue." Toms said he has retained three attorneys.
(During an interview last month, Caldwell said DOA will not arbitrate legal issues and will deal only with compliance issues.)
Toms also said he feels the report did not address his complaints. (The formal list of complaints has not been made available to the press.) Offering one complaint as an example in the telephone interview with the Daily News, Toms said the report says he alleges the airport is unsafe, a statement Toms denies.
Final discussion of the matter "will be in a court of law, I'm sure, because people are throwing out garbage on the street all the time," Toms said.
He added, "With us, they're intent on getting us out of here, and they'll probably be successful in doing that, because we cannot continue to subsidize this public airport (through fuel sales and other sources of revenue)."
(Last month, Ross, speaking for the commission, told the county commissioners' appropriations committee, "We don't feel like he (Toms) is the person that needs to be doing the FBO operations.")
Tetterton said he agreed with the state's report. He added that county officials had urged Ross to negotiate with Toms. The commission should allow Toms to pay the rent and get out of the airport-operations business while continuing to run his private business, Tetterton said.
Jonathan Clayborne may be reached by telephone at 940-4213 or via e-mail at jonathan@wdnweb.com.