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Airport management scrutinized through FOIAs by hangar lessee

Joan Van Houten Staff Writer;  The operation of the Hastings City/Barry County Airport in Hastings is being scrutinized by a hangar lessee who is making multiple Freedom of Information Act requests. Thousands of pages of documents have been provided to Michael Dantuma, a Grand Rapids attorney representing Tomi Cordova who leases a hanger at the airport, airport officials said. The documents include financial records, copies of leases, emails received from the state and an inventory of all airport property and equipment.

Airport Manager Mark Noteboom said approximately six FOIA requests have been filed with one of them from a private investigator, Ronald L. Neil from Lair Investigations LLC. Dantuma confirmed that Neil works with his law firm and also represents Cordova.

“I have no idea what the endgame is for all of this information,” Noteboom said at an airport board meeting on May 26.

Cordova was not at the meeting. However, in a post-meeting interview, Dantuma spoke on Cordova's behalf as his legal counsel.

“What we're after is a waiver that should have been obtained for non-aviation related business conducted at the airport,” Dantuma said. “We've haven't found one yet. We've received response to our requests from local government agencies and state agencies, including the Michigan Aeronautics Bureau, that say it doesn't exist. There are no waivers for the non-aviation related businesses that have been operating at airport.”

Cordova is concerned that mismanagement of the facility would harm the airport, Dantuma said.

He said Noteboom had been leasing out hangars for auto and camper storage and has allowed a non-aviation related metal fabrication company to operate on airport grounds for years.

“We get inspected by the state every year,” Noteboom said. “As a matter of fact, our 2019 state inspection is next week. They are very thorough and look at everything. If they see something wrong, they tell us, and we only get a certain amount of time to make it right.

“I don't think these guys understand the way things have been. The state allows airports to lease hangars for storage if the hangars are owned by the airport, and it's sitting empty, as long as priority is given to the airplanes. If someone needs a hangar for their plane, the person leasing storage space has to leave, and they know this before they sign the lease. As for the metal fabrication business, this one of the businesses on the list of state exceptions, and they are allowed to be here.”

Storage renters are charged more than for airplane storage and so are commercial businesses, he noted.

The Barry County taxpayers used to contribute $90,000 a year to support airport operation. Today, the airport is self-sufficient – taxpayers contribute nothing, according to Noteboom.

The latest FOIA requests were made to Barry County in care of County Administrator Michael Brown on April 25 and 26 by Dantuma.

The April 25 request was for “any and all waivers, proposed, filed and/or authorized,” that waives the Airport Grant Assurance requirements. The assurance program provides grants to the airport. Acting outside of those requirements would jeopardize funding, airport officials said.

The April 26 FOIA requested information related to all airport business conducted by the airport and Noteboom on city, county and personal electronic devices “by way of phones and computers” to provide services on behalf of the airport.

The letter sent to Brown by Dantuma stated, “In accordance to the Freedom Information Act, we hereby make demand that any electronic device utilized by Mr. Noteboom be preserved” and that Noteboom be directed not to alter, delete, change or modify any electronic evidence.

“I spoke with an attorney, and I'm not required to hand over my personal cell phone and computer information,” Noteboom said.

In the request dated April 25, and directed to Brown, Neil asked for records pertaining to business at the airport using the cell phone number belonging to Noteboom and any additional electronic devices such as storage devices owned or used by Noteboom. Neil requested information for the years 2014 through 2018 and the current year 2019.

Dave Tossava, the city's representative on the board, said the situation has gotten out of hand and is beginning to impact the airport financially. “I think it's time to bring the airport attorney in for a closed session to talk about what we can do to put this to an end,” he said.

The motion was approved and the closed session will be scheduled for the next board meeting.

Cordova has not filed a formal complaint or grievance, and Dantuma said it may never get to that point.

According to official documents and Noteboom, all FOIA requests related to the airport have been directed to Barry County. The City of Hastings, the airport board members and the Barry County Commissioners have not received requests from Dantuma, Neil or Cordova.

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