MONTROSE – The commercial business of providing aeronautical services at the Montrose Regional Airport including aircraft fueling and hangaring, to the average citizen, is of little or no consequence in their daily lives. However, for Montrose County elected officials, the past seven years of state and federal litigation filed by JetAway Aviation has given them invaluable experience in the business of being an airport Fixed Base Operator, or FBO.
Montrose County Attorney Bob Hill, and the other lawyers contracted by the county to defend against JetAway litigation, are 12-0 in state and federal courtrooms, and with the Federal Aviation Administration as well, dating back to 2006 when JetAway first alleged the previous Board of County Commissioners conspired with Jet Center Partners, founders of the Black Canyon Jet Center, in creating a monopoly at the airport.
On Aug. 27 of this year, JetAway President Steven Stuhmer contacted the county, saying it would dismiss both of its remaining state cases against the county and pay $250,000 in attorney fees, "without asking anything in return from the county."
JetAway was ordered to pay those attorney fees in a March court ruling.
Also in August, Phoenix, Ariz.-based Cutter Aviation, a highly respected FBO, sent a letter to the county commissioners asking to begin negotiations to pursue a second FBO at the airport. Cutter would manage the JetAway-owned FBO.
"JetAway will dismiss all federal antitrust litigation with the county as soon as an agreement is reached allowing Cutter Aviation to operate an FBO on the airport," Stuhmer wrote. "I am hopeful you [Commissioner Ron Henderson], David [White] and Gary [Ellis] will take the bull by the horns and put an end to this controversy that is costing Montrose County taxpayers millions of dollars," Stuhmer said.
The county responded to Cutter's inquiry saying the commissioners are awaiting guidance from the FAA regarding "whether the county is obligated to negotiate with JetAway on a lease of airport property, in light of JetAway's past violations of airport rules, safety standards and court orders and in light of past, present and potential future litigation by JetAway against the county."
The letter was drafted by Dan Reimer, a Denver-based aviation attorney hired by the county. Hill said Monday the county has yet to receive a response from the FAA or Cutter since Reimer sent the letter.
"While we have no reason to doubt Cutter Aviation's reliability and integrity, we have many reasons to question JetAway's," Reimer wrote to Cutter.
In its contract with Montrose County, the Black Canyon Jet Center has agreed to give the county the terminal, the fuel farm and the hangars after 30 years. BCJC spent more than $4 million for these improvements to county aviation.
In 2010, Black Canyon Jet Center was named the 26th best FBO in the U.S. by Airport International News, an industry guide for private pilots.
The Watch recently obtained emails through an open records request seeking correspondence between the BOCC and JetAway Aviation. According to these documents, JetAway has been pressing the commissioners for years to get a deal for a second FBO, despite being the county's most visible and most expensive plaintiff, in litigation that has reached into county, state and federal courthouses.
In an email from Stuhmer to Commissioner Gary Ellis, just two days after the 2008 election, Stuhmer wrote, "In January, you will have businessmen and economic growth allies rather than adversaries as your fellow commissioners."
Stuhmer was referring to Ron Henderson and David White, winners of the 2008 election. Part of White's campaign message four years ago was to end the JetAway litigation for the benefit of the county and its taxpayers.
In 2010, Michael Girdner, Stuhmer's business partner, pressed the commissioners further, asking the county to grant JetAway a lease to operate an FBO; in return, JetAway would drop its litigation against the county.
"I have been speaking to commissioners White and Henderson (good public servants) in an effort to warn of misinformation and false information being distributed to them, the judicial system and residents of Montrose County to keep us at odds," Girdner wrote.
Days later, Girdner wrote County Manager Jesse Smith again: "It is also disconcerting to see you now trying to keep me from communicating directly with the decision makers, our elected officials."
The Watch's request for emails included all correspondence between commissioners and JetAway through their county email accounts and personal accounts. The commissioners have used personal accounts to correspond with JetAway officials. However, Hill said those documents were not subject to an open records request, therefore limiting the commissioners' disclosures.
Henderson told The Watch Monday afternoon he could not comment on his correspondence with JetAway, saying only that the language Stuhmer and Girdner used had a "deliberate tone."
When asked if the newly proposed JetAway-Cutter deal was a "bait-and-switch" offer to get JetAway its FBO, Henderson responded: "It's perhaps a possibility."
County Attorney Hill says new taxiways and other infrastructure would have to be built for a second FBO to operate, in addition to, complying with FAA regulations.
Henderson added the county is waiting to hear from the FAA before proceeding.
"We want to do the right thing; we don't want to create a situation where we're having to move backwards," Henderson said.
In August, White told the Better Community News of Montrose, "Once we privatize the FBO, it's open season. Any company can come in and offer to be on the airport as an FBO. If they meet the criteria, we may have to accept it and then let the private companies work to earn the business of their prospective patrons."
Asked what he meant by that statement White said, "It is highly imprudent on the part of the county to tell anyone who wants to operate an FBO at the airport that they can't...the FAA is not real enamored with counties taking control of airports and setting people up in a monopoly.
“That's what I mean by open season. I’m for competition."
"There is hardly enough business for one FBO," added Henderson. "I can't really see a top-flight FBO operator like Cutter would move to Montrose. But that's their prerogative," Henderson said Monday.
At no time during The Watch's interview with Hill on Oct. 12, did he acknowledge the existence of private county commissioner email accounts, nor did he indicate or acknowledge that any correspondence between the county commission and JetAway existed. Hill only referenced state law that states private email accounts of public officials are not subject to public inspection. The Watch in its investigation learned that such activity between the commissioners and JetAway has transpired in the past.