Lawsuit alleges hostility from airport authority

By Dennis Seid/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Despite what he regards as a record of success as executive director of Tupelo Regional Airport for nearly a decade, Terry Anderson alleges that hostility from airport authority members led to his firing.
On Thursday, Anderson, along with former airport operations director Reid Dawe, filed a federal lawsuit, claiming that their constitutional rights to free speech were violated.
Airport Authority attorney John Hill on Friday said he had read the complaint against the board “and obviously the airport authority denies the claims of wrongdoing alleged by Mr. Anderson and Mr. Dawe.”
Hill declined to comment further.
Both Anderson and Dawe are asking to be returned to their former jobs at the Tupelo Regional Airport. The men also are asking for actual damages to be determined by a jury, as well as “reasonable” attorneys’ fees, costs and expenses.
No date for a trial has been set, but it could take a year or more before the case is heard.
Anderson, who had been the executive director at the airport since 2000, was fired in December 2009 after the authority said it lost confidence in him. Dawe, a close associate of Anderson who had worked at the airport for 23 years, resigned in August after a demotion a 30 percent pay cut.
Both men say the airport board behaved inappropriately in forcing them out.
According to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, Anderson claims that airport operations doubled under this leadership; there were 10 years of accident-free operations; and the airport authority’s reliance on subsidies from the city steadily declined, from a $400,000 request in 2000 to no request in 2009.
Dawe was hired as a maintenance technician by the airport in 1987 and later became director of airport operations, a position Anderson directly supervised.
According to the suit, Dawe “supported and applied Anderson’s policy of strict compliance with laws and regulations” governing airport operations.
Anderson’s relationship with the board apparently soured in late 2009. For five years, an extension of the airport runway had been discussed, and Anderson supported a project that would have altered or moved West Jackson Street Extended, a busy east-west corridor through the city. That option, he said, was the safest and most economical way.
In the suit, Anderson alleges that certain members of the board were angered by his opinion – published in the Daily Journal – “since those members had personal and business interests in preventing the closure and relocation of West Jackson Street Extended.”
Anderson said his opinions did not hurt airport operations or the efficiency of either the city or the airport. At worst, the suit says, his opinions were a “minor” offense.
“Instead of appropriate discipline for this trivial alleged offense, defendant fired Anderson,” the suit says.
Further, Anderson’s firing “violated his right to free speech as protected by the First and 14th Amendments” as well as “the public’s and press’ First and 14th Amendment rights to access public information.”
The suit also says Anderson, 64, was a victim of age discrimination.
Since his firing, Anderson has spoken publicly at City Council and airport board meetings. He also has attended most, if not all, of the airport meetings.
His statements at those meetings, the lawsuit claims, combined with his filing of an EEOC charge for age discrimination, “caused hostility toward Anderson by members of the board.”
And that hostility, Dawe suggests in his part of the lawsuit, extended to him.
After Anderson’s firing, Dawe said he contacted his old boss to help locate documents essential to his job. Dawe also corresponded with former board chairman and board member Chuck Moffatt, who also has been critical of the board.
The lawsuit includes a letter from airport executive director Josh Abramson – who replaced Anderson in April – telling Dawe not to share airport operational or financial information “with members of the public, specifically Mr. Terry Anderson and Mr. Chuck Moffatt.”
A second letter tells Dawe he has been demoted to maintenance technician for his job performance and for his sharing of information with Anderson and Moffatt.
Dawe resigned, according to the lawsuit, because he “was so upset about his outrageous demotion and by the attempts to keep Tupelo citizens from knowing about operations of their airport.”
Dawe also alleges his demotion was due in part to the board’s belief that he helped Anderson with his EEOC age-discrimination charge.
The lawsuit wasn’t unexpected. In May, Anderson and attorney Jim Waide met with the City Council and its attorneys. They said a lawsuit would be filed if changes weren’t made at the airport.
“Terry would love to see some corrections made of airport practices,” Waide said then. “He would also prefer not to file a suit … because the suit would inevitably involve substantial humiliation and embarrassment for some members of the board, and he hopes a solution will come without that.”

Contact Dennis Seid at (662) 678-1578 or dennis.seid@journalinc.com.

Read the Lawsuit