Hangar Tenant Claims Lease Dispute Violates Free Speech

OCEAN CITY – Less than flattering remarks about the management of the Ocean City Municipal Airport along with the creation of some T-shirts allegedly illustrating the same has apparently led to the resort not renewing the lease of a hangar at the facility, according to a local man who filed a federal suit in January, claiming his constitutional right to free speech has been violated.

A series of seemingly tongue-in-cheek barbs directed at airport management has caused the town to not renew the lease for one tenant at the facility in West Ocean City, prompting the source of the less than flattering material to file suit in U.S. District Court against the Mayor and Council. For the last six years, Berlin resident John Masino, Jr. has been the tenant of hangar number D-5 at the airport, but when he started an Internet site devoted to the goings on at the facility that included disparaging remarks about airport manager George Goodrow and his alleged treatment of the airport regulars, the town allegedly singled him out by not renewing his lease.

On Jan. 29, Masino, through his attorney, filed suit claiming the town of Ocean City had violated his right to free speech, along with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Essentially, Masino is claiming because he created a website lampooning the management of the airport, and later created a small batch of T-shirts for airport regulars emblazoned with “Ocean City Bastards” and “OXBastards,” the town is withholding his lease.

However, the town last week filed a formal answer to the complaint, asserting the suit is unfounded because Masino’s existing lease has never been cancelled.

According to the complaint, Masino and his wife have been active and vocal supporters of the airport, and to promote camaraderie among the local airport tenants created a website in 2004 to provide and share matters of public interest relating to the facility and the town of Ocean City. In 2006, Goodrow became the new manager of the airport and Masino took him for an airplane ride and briefed him on airport issues.

Shortly thereafter, according to the complaint, Goodrow became increasingly antagonistic with the local airport tenants and implemented new policies to “discourage and prevent local airport tenants from congregating in the facility’s operations building.” According to the complaint, the local pilots and tenants “converged on the operations building of the airport to interact with one another and to provide support and assistance to airport staff.”

However, according to the complaint, Goodrow “removed furnishings from the operations building and openly declared to Mr. Masino and another airport tenant that he was trying to chase airport tenants out of the operations building,” and that Goodrow “became obsessed with ridding ‘his airport’ of local tenants, whom he has referred to as bastards.”

Masino began to chronicle what he referred to as Goodrow’s increasingly hostile behavior toward the airport tenants on his website.

At one point, he posted the message, “the airport management has continued to make it clear that local pilots and tenants, or ‘airport bums,’ are not welcome at his airport,” and that “the furnishings have been strategically rearranged to discourage people from hanging around the operations building.

In October, airport hangar leases executed by the city were returned to all local airport tenants with the noticeable exception of Masino. When Masino inquired about the status of the lease renewal, Goodrow allegedly told them it is being “held uptown,” prompting an email to Public Works Director Hal Adkins and City Manager Dennis Dare from the Masinos.

According to a return email from Adkins, included in the complaint as an exhibit, the public works director responded “at the instruction of the council from about two weeks ago, I am working with the city attorney to cancel your lease in accordance with the working of the lease agreement.” In addition, the email from Adkins goes on to state “the council will not tolerate demoralizing, demeaning and totally negative comments that your spouse has been circulating via his Internet site concerning the management of the facility and his most recent actions with the shirt production alluding to the word ‘bastard’.”

Masino took the response as a perceived violation of his First Amendment Rights and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which in turn contacted City Solicitor Guy Ayres. According to the complaint, Ayres told the ACLU the non-renewal of Masino’s lease was attributed to Masino having posted on his website the combination to a lock on a fence partially enclosing the facility.

In his formal answer to the complaint, Ayres asserts the suit is unfounded because Masino’s existing lease is still current and has not been terminated. Ayres admits in the answer Masino has not received an official letter from the town canceling the lease because, “in fact, no such lease has been cancelled and the plaintiff has had uninterrupted and currently full enjoyment of all rights accorded to him under his tenancy with the defendant.”