- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi officials are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to maintain the city of Jackson’s control over the state’s largest airport.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a law in May to create a nine-member regional board, rather than a five-member city board, for Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport.

Critics say creating a new board is a way for majority-white and strongly Republican suburbs to grab power and property from Mississippi’s majority-black and strongly Democratic capital city. Supporters of the change say the Jackson-Evers airport is a regional asset that could be run more efficiently.

A Jackson resident, the Rev. Jeffrey Stallworth, sued to try to block the change, and the suit is backed by Mayor Tony Yarber, the Jackson City Council and the airport board targeted for replacement.

A new board was supposed to take over July 1, but change was delayed because of the legal dispute.

In papers filed Tuesday, two assistant attorneys general and an attorney for the governor argued that Stallworth lacks the legal standing to sue. They also said that because of “common law legislative immunity,” the Legislature and the governor can’t be sued for their official actions.

“As the United States Supreme Court has recognized, it ‘is well-established that federal, state, and regional legislators are entitled to absolute immunity from civil liability for their legislative activities,’” the state attorneys wrote. They said the immunity “extends to any government official acting in a legislative capacity, even if the official is not a member of the legislative branch” - in this case, Gov. Bryant.

Under Senate Bill 2162 , state officials and suburban Madison and Rankin counties would appoint a majority of the new airport board, but five of nine members would have to live in Jackson. The current board governs Jackson-Evers airport and the smaller Hawkins Field airport. The new board would also oversee both.

On June 6, the Federal Aviation Administration published notice of a policy that could complicate, or even block, a change in the airport board. It says that only the FAA has the power to formally change sponsorship of a publicly run airport and to issue an airport operating certificate. The policy says any state or local legislative body must have approval of a current airport board before voting to change the board, unless there’s “substantial evidence of mismanagement on the part of the current sponsor/operator.”

The policy says the FAA will not accept an application to change an airport board until any dispute over a change is fully resolved.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: https://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .


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