A Resignation, A Condemnation, and A Rebuttal

UPDATE: Video of the meeting has been posted.  Walters' resignation comes at 2:15:53.  Flannery's reaction comes at 2:25:40.

"Good evening," began Jason Walters of Patriot Aviation, the fixed base operator at Hillsdale Municipal Airport.  Walters, a public official by way of his city-granted title of Airport Manager, arranged his paperwork on the podium during the closing public comment session at Monday night's meeting of the Hillsdale City Council.  He wore a business suit and was calm and measured in his speech, though clearly emotional.

"Jason Walters, Hillsdale Airport Manager.  Thank you guys for sitting here tonight.  It's been a long night.  I promise I'll keep this brief, and I wrote my own speech."

"I've lived here for my whole life.  I've worked here.  And it's been long enough that I think I really understand the trajectory and the culture of this community.  I also understand the people's identity, and I've been a witness to the negativity in this community.  It's severely impacted my ability to run my business and continue to work here.  And it's for those reasons I'm going to resign as the airport manager."

A momentary silence came over the room as Walters prepared to continue, and the council listened with rapt attention.

"There will be a letter forthcoming stipulating the time in which I will help in the transition with you guys and Mr. Mackie, but I think that it's inevitable, and I'll make sure that I leave this position in good standing and help you guys find a proper replacement."

"I think we've done good things.  I've learned a lot from you guys, and it's been an honor to work for all of you.  You guys have all been stand-up people.  It's too bad that you have to be a part of such a negative community, cause you guys could probably do a lot more if you were given the opportunity  But I have learned a lot from you guys, and I've gained a lot of great experiences, and I've had a blast turning your airport around and making it something better."

"I'll continue on helping you guys, but it'll have to be in the private sector, not in the public.  And I'm happy to help any of you guys at any time, so please reach out, keep in touch, and let me know how I can be of assistance.  Thank you."

After several other members of the public made statements, the floor was opened to the council for their comments, and it was Councilman Patrick Flannery who took the lead.

"I just wanna say I'm really sorry to hear about the resignation of Jason Walters.  I mean... I've really appreciated the amount of time that you've had there, um... I'll be honest with you: I despise the people who have said the things that they've said about you.  I'm saying this all personally, not as a representative of the city right now.  But I think it's an example of... just... the reprehensibility of people.  Of people who have been in our community -- and they know who I'm talking about -- who have said things that are untrue and they know are untrue.  People who have come to our podium and spoken about how certain people argue here, yet that very same day, they had lunch with the person's spouse, whose vehicle was here.  So I think it's... it disgusts me; what people say and do on the Internet -- and you know that they are unwilling to say that to your face.  They would never do that.  And I am disappointed... in just the six people."

"If you hear me dub 'The Hillsdale Six,'" Flannery added, "I call it 'The Hilldsale Six.'  And I'll tell ya: it's not because there are six people, but it's because what six represents in the Bible.  And I'm not at all hedging anything.  I am disappointed in those people.  And they know who they are, in this room right now, and who are probably watching streaming.  Feel free to attack me; I know you probably will.  You've done it before; feel free to do it again.  But Jason Walters is a good man.  He served his time that he did, he did things and he will admit to it; better than anyone I have ever met who has done things against the law.  And I just..." he sighed in frustration, "It disgusts me, that in this era that we're in right now, when someone is able to have a goal to change their life and to make their life better, and to have a business that runs and helps our community, and who has actually done something to that airport that makes it better?  Anyone here who tells me that airport isn't better since Jason Walters has been there, I will tell you you're a liar.  You are not seeing what he has done to this community."

Addressing Walters himself, Flannery continued: "I am sorry, Jason.  I am truly sorry.  I... I just can't express that enough.  Um... I apologize.  I really do; for what's happened to you.  I truly do.  Um, I wish the best for you.  You'll be in my prayers.  My family; I'll ask all my children to be praying for you, and to hope that you can eventually forgive those people and forgive the city for what has happened.  I know you hold no blame for us, but I hold blame on the city that this occurred."

"Again," Flannery stated for the public, "these are my own thoughts, my own things.  No way, any way, represents what the city believes, but... I'm disappointed.  I can't believe it.  And I would hope every single one of those people who said these things will come and speak to me personally about it.  If you feel that is true, you will come and talk to me.  And I will respond to you with what I know to be the truth.  Because what you have said are lies."

The accusations on both sides have a hefty background.  To start with, Walters does have a violent felony in his past, and that has been the basis for a significant portion of the public backlash against his hiring as airport manager.

But the context of Monday night's fireworks had very little to do with that history.  It was rooted in recent events.

As you may be aware, before he was named airport manager, Walters undertook construction projects in his private hangar without the proper permits or approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.  The Airport Advisory Committee, a body created to provide the city council with a group of aviators to help guide airport policy, had notified the city council of the lack of proper paperwork as early as March of 2015.  They were assured by the city shortly thereafter that the Michigan Department of Transportation was involved, and that things were being taken care of.  However, in March of this year, an anonymous tipster complained to MDOT about the modifications, leading to the appropriate paperwork and lease agreements being filed by the city after the fact.  Additionally, the county building inspector's office fined Walters for failing to acquire a permit for the modifications, and such a permit was also procured after the fact.

Jeff King is a pilot and the former chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee.  He was quoted in the Daily News article linked to above, and as a result found himself the victim of a false police report being filed against him with the Michigan State Police by, as he was told, "airport staff."  He was accused of accessing restricted areas on airport property.  The problem?  He was across the state in Holland at the time, and he's publicly presented the evidence to prove it.

He was watching Monday night's city council meeting online, and he counts himself among "The Hillsdale Six."

"My impression of Mr. Flannery is, he was just deflecting and trying to shift blame.  The purpose of the airport committee was to provide oversight... oversight Mr. Flannery ignored."

King says that when he was the airport chairman, Flannery would not return his calls, and the last e-mail he received from the councilman was in November of 2014, despite what King says were repeated attempts to engage Flannery on airport issues.

"It is council's neglect of oversight of the airport that allowed things to progress this far."

King says he has received an apology for the false police report, but Flannery's comments have left him questioning its sincerity.

"I plan on following up on that, as the apology extends beyond the airport manager and was from the city.  If Mr. Flannery believes the conspiracy theory he wove at the council meeting, I'll need to verify he was indeed speaking as an individual.  Because frankly, what I heard, if it was directed at me as it appears to have been, is simply ludicrous."

Penny Swan is currently a candidate for city council in Ward 4.  She was sitting in the council chamber when Flannery delivered his remarks and, as victim of circumstance, was implicated in Flannery's conspiracy theory.  She, too, counts herself among "The Hillsdale Six."

"I was definitely in the room, and yes, Mr. Flannery was staring directly at me while he was speaking.  Most definitely felt it was directed at me."

She believes that the goal in the condemnation, when directed toward her, was to discredit her as a candidate.

"I definitely saw it as an attack on my candidacy, and my character, and as such, yes, I see it as possibly having an effect on my ability to have a fair campaign."

"Honestly, I am still kinda in shock and really haven't processed it all yet."

So how was she involved in the Walters affair?

"Kathy -- Jeff's wife -- and I had lunch at the Pub the very time Jeff was supposed to have been at the airport."

An outpouring of sympathy, support, and echoes of Flannery's comments was given to Walters by the majority of the council following those opening remarks, and the sentiment of the night seemed to be that this was the result of an unfair maligning of Walters for his past crimes.  But both King and Swan say that's not the case.

"I too share some of the thoughts of the council," King says.  "He did a good job cleaning up the airport.  If blame is to be assessed here, it is city council and Mayor Sessions ignoring the advice and input of their own airport committee.  Mayor Sessions knew that the modifications Mr. Walters made to the hangar were against FAA rules, as Mr. Sessions had signed the same lease Mr. Walters did.  He was advised by airport committee members of the same.  Yet he let it happen anyway.  This fostered an attitude of 'anything goes,' which ultimately led to MDOT stepping in."

"I agree with Jeff," Swan adds.  "I like Jason, and I feel the council and mayor, along with David Mackie, let him down in guiding him through things."

They both see the city council and administration in this case as having been enablers to Walters.

"Jason shares some blame," King says, "but council appoints what are supposed to be subject matter experts who shared all the warning signs with them, yet they ignored them."

Notably, the city's social media policy was on Monday's agenda, as well.  While that issue was ultimately sent to the Operations and Governance Committee for review prior to Walters' resignation and Flannery's scathing commentary, it leaves open the question of how the later events of the meeting will impact what that committee presents to the full council at a later date.

Full disclosure: Josh Colletta is the public address announcer at Hillsdale College, where Councilman Flannery is the treasurer.