By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN At a special Winsted City Council meeting last Monday, the council approved hours of operation for Westside Skydivers as sunrise to sunset.
These are also the hours approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
At the start of the meeting, Mayor Steve Stotko gave a brief overview of recent actions concerning Westside Skydivers and the city of Winsted.
The contract between the city and Westside Skydivers was terminated Aug. 7 due to non-compliance in regards to hours of operation. The council presented a new contract at a special meeting Aug. 10, but Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson was not in favor of signing it.
At the Aug. 21 council meeting, Johnson presented a different contract to the council that he would be willing to sign. However, the council did not agree to it.
The council then directed City Administrator Brad Martens to work out an agreement with Johnson that could be presented to the council for approval.
The next day, a special meeting (paid for by Westside Skydivers) was scheduled for the morning of Aug. 27 in order to go over this newly proposed contract.
However, the afternoon of Aug. 24, Johnson called Martens and stated he would like to sign the contract that was approved Aug. 10, with the intention of amending the contract for sunrise/sunset hours of operation during the Aug. 27 special meeting.
The contract was signed Aug. 24, which gave Johnson the ability to use the airport property for jumps throughout the weekend.
At last Monday’s meeting, Johnson said his reason for signing the contract Aug. 24 was due to a large volume of customers he knew would be arriving Aug. 25. If he wouldn’t have been able to use the city property, it would have been tough to get all the jumps done on time.
Johnson’s contract for the weekend stated the previous end time of 30 minutes prior to sunset for skydiving operations.
Council Member Dave Mochinski asked Johnson what time his last jumps ended the night of Aug. 26.
Johnson stated his last load was done approximately a half-hour prior to sunset.
“You were still jumping after sunset,” Mochinski then said.
“I disagree with that,” Johnson responded.
“I figured you would,” Mochinski said.
Johnson said he left to get something to eat after the last load of tandems had been completed, and that, to his knowledge, those were the last jumps of the day.
Council Member Tom Ollig asked Johnson if there could have been other jumpers, not from Westside Skydivers, out there Aug. 26.
Johnson said other centers do jump from time to time, but he doesn’t know if that was the case Aug. 26.
Ollig said the council needs to make sure it was Johnson’s customers, not someone else, before taking any disciplinary action.
“It was his plane; there was no doubt about that,” Mochinski said.
Council Member Bonnie Quast said she didn’t personally see any jumpers after sunset or a hear a plane, so it wouldn’t be fair for her to make a judgement.
“If that plane was in the air at that time, there will be a record of it,” Johnson said.
Stotko said it would be better to wait to judge the situation until Johnson has had an opportunity to present his side.
“I’d at least like the opportunity to look at the flight record,” Johnson said. “I’m not aware of any flight after sunset.”
Johnson said it could have been a different entity entirely, or someone who used the plane without his permission.
Quast asked Johnson if he has a system for penalizing pilots who do not follow the rules.
Johnson responded that he does, and he is currently in the process of replacing one of his pilots for this reason.
When asked for his input, city attorney Fran Eggert said allegations of after-hours skydiving should be addressed separately from the contract approval. Eggert explained that Johnson should have an opportunity to explain himself through a hearing or other process.
“All of us want to start fresh and put this behind us,” Ollig said. He then made a motion to approve skydiving hours for Westside Skydivers as sunrise to sunset, which was approved unanimously.
Johnson said he would look into the Aug. 26 flight record and inform the city, but as of press time, the city had not received a response.