Issue sparked by complaint about after-hours jumping
By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Due to violations of contract in regards to hours of operation, the Westside Skydivers business contract with the city of Winsted was terminated at Tuesday’s Winsted City Council meeting.
A special meeting took place Friday morning to consider a new contract. The meeting was paid for by Westside Skydivers.
As of press time, Westside Skydivers owner Joe Johnson had not signed the new contract.
The contract violation was brought to light through a written complaint from Winsted Airport Commission Member Glenn Weibel, which documented instances of skydiving activities taking place after approved hours.
The agreement between the city and Johnson stated “no skydiving activities shall take place until 30 minutes after sunrise or 30 minutes before sunset.” The agreement further stated that the city “may terminate the agreement immediately upon any event of default or incident of noncompliance without prior notice.”
Winsted’s contract was more limited than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which permit skydiving activities from sunrise to sunset. Nighttime jumps are also allowed in certain instances.
“We have never had an FAA violation,” Johnson said Tuesday. “We are allowed, per the FAA, to jump up until sunset. It’s not a safety violation.”
Council members stated that is it important to follow the contract with Winsted, even if it is not a requirement of the FAA.
Johnson said he does his best to be done with jumps 30 minutes prior to sunset, but added that it can be tricky to follow 100 percent of the time.
“When I signed the contract, I never imagined I would be this busy, and that I’d have to manage the time this tightly,” he said.
When scheduling jumps, Westside Skydivers builds in a two-hour cushion before closing time. Throughout the day, this time can get backed up due to weather, air traffic, late customers, and other factors.
Council Member Tom Ollig said that if the time is getting late, Johnson should tell his customers they aren’t allowed to jump.
“I’ll start saying no to the customers but tearing up the contract is tearing up the business,” Johnson said.
“I think you put us in a real bad spot,” Mayor Steve Stotko said, explaining that if the time was an issue, it should have been in the contract.
“I hate to do this, but I’m making a motion that we tear up your contract terminate it,” he added.
“I hate to do this, too, but it’s a contract and if we don’t abide by our contracts, why should we even have them,” Council Member Dave Mochinski said.
Before the vote, Council Member Bonnie Quast suggested that if they do terminate the contract, that they schedule a special meeting to give Westside Skydivers an opportunity to enter a new agreement as soon as possible.
“To put a business out of business in this day of age is probably the saddest thing I can imagine,” she said. “But, I don’t like that he doesn’t feel the rules are important enough to abide by.”
The vote to terminate the contract passed 4-1, with Council Member George Schulenberg, Stotko, Quast, and Ollig in favor; and Mochinski opposed.
“I wish we would have had some different teeth in this contract if it was violated some kind of penalization for the first offense,” Mochinski said.
The second motion, to call a special session to consider a new contract, passed unanimously.
Friday’s special meeting began with Stotko asking the council a baseline question.
“Do you want to enter into a new contract with Westside Skydivers?” he asked. “I’d like to get that out of the way first.”
The council members agreed that they would like to pursue that option, and proceeded to review a draft contract that, if signed, would extend through the end of 2012.
Under the newly proposed contract, definitions of phrases such as “skydiving activity,” “flight path,” and “residential property” were clarified.
The hours of operation were stated as no earlier than 8 a.m., and 30 minutes prior to sunset.
The contract also stated that Westside Skydivers would need an adequate quantity of portable restroom facilities, and approval for items stored at the airport.
A first offense could result in at least a two-day suspension and/or a $1,000 fine. A second offense could result in at least a 14-day suspension and/or a $2,000 fine. The third offense could be at least a 30-day suspension and a $5,000 fine.
The contract also retained the city’s right to terminate the contract in case of noncompliance, without prior notice.
“That language existed in there previously, and that’s what allowed the action on Tuesday night,” City Administrator Brad Martens said.
Council members stated that they have received several comments from the public since Tuesday’s meeting.
One concern voiced by residents was the noise level of the planes, and that the planes seem to fly low to the ground.
The council asked Johnson if any of that could be alleviated.
Johnson explained that the sound is from the plane dropping in altitude, and is not engine noise. He added that they have tried different settings, and that they do their best to be away from residential areas as much as possible.
Schulenberg questioned how the city would police the agreement, especially in regards to hours of operation.
“I’m hoping that the honor system is going to be respected,” Quast said.
Mochinski asked Johnson if his employees understand that they need to follow Winsted’s rules. Johnson answered that they do, but added that the skydiving public can be difficult to manage.
“You’ve seemed to push the envelope on everything you do,” Stotko said. “I think this is a great business for Winsted, but I’m a little leery with signing a contract I hope I’m wrong.”
Johnson re-stated that his business has never had an FAA violation, and that this has been the first written complaint.
“I do take it very seriously,” he said. “This is my livelihood. I’m trying to raise a family here, and I’d like to make this my home.”
Johnson requested that the council modify the contract hours of operation to say 7 a.m. to sunset, but the council was not in favor of that idea.
Johnson also said that, instead of providing portable restroom facilities to accommodate his customers, he would like to continue to use the arrival/departure building restrooms until he can construct a new facility of his own with restrooms.
Martens said the wear and tear on the building is excessive, and is over budget for the city.
Johnson also requested that the contract be extended through the end of 2013.
The council denied both requests, and approved the contract.
As of the end of the meeting, Johnson had declined to sign the contract.
Afterward, Brad Millerbernd of Millerbernd Process Systems and the Roadhouse Coffee Shop shared his thoughts with the council.
He stated that the economic impact of Westside Skydivers to the city is huge, and accounts for 10 percent of his monthly sales at the coffee shop.
“I think the big picture is not being looked at here,” he said, adding that other towns are begging to have a successful business like this in their community.
“Why would we want to constrain and prohibit his growth?” Millerbernd said.
As for noisy airplanes, Millerbernd said that his metal fabrication business starts dumping steel bins at 4 a.m., and that he would not want a moratorium placed on his business for noise.
“That’s a slippery slope,” he said. “It’s far easier to cultivate the businesses you have than to attract new ones.”
Johnson said his operation has done 3,000 tandem jumps to date. For every jump, an average of three people come along to watch.
“That’s 12,000 people who came through Winsted that normally wouldn’t,” he said.
When the skydiving schedule is backed up, visitors often go to local businesses while they wait.
“I get the benefit from it,” Millerbernd said. “Quite frankly, I was disgusted with what happened Tuesday night . . . I don’t think this is the right approach for the city, to not cultivate a business-friendly environment.” Ollig responded that the council is well aware of the economic benefit, and he hopes that going forward, the contract will not be an issue. If the contract is honored, there shouldn’t be a problem, he explained.
“There’s a balance that has to be accomplished, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he added.
At the end of Tuesday’s meeting, Stotko gave his opinion that Weibel and Johnson should both resign from the Winsted Airport Commission, due to personal conflicts.
“You don’t have to do it, but in my opinion, it would be for the best,” Stotko said.
As of the special meeting Friday morning, neither Johnson nor Weibel had decided to resign.
The 2012 airport commission appointees include Russ Paschke, Johnson, Kevin Kubasch, Weibel, and one open seat for a member at-large. Mochinski is the council liaison, and Martens is the city staff member who works with the airport commission.
At the Friday meeting, the council asked Kubasch for his thoughts.
“The tension at the airport is so thick you can cut it with a knife,” Kubasch said.
His suggestion was, rather than singling out two individuals, that the entire airport commission be disbanded. Then, if the council so chooses, new applications could be accepted for reappointment at a later date.
Kubasch said he has observed personal conflict between Johnson and Weibel, and that “nothing good can come out of that.” Stotko said he had already planned to ask for decertification of the airport commission to be placed on the agenda of a future council workshop. “You and I had the same thought,” he told Kubasch.
Johnson said he agreed it would be best to start with a clean slate.