4 open court cases underline disputes in Middletown-Start Skydiving relationship

In the past few years, tensions have grown between the city of Middletown and Start Skydiving regarding the operation at Middletown Regional Airport.

More recently, those have resulted in filings by the city and the family-owned skydiving business in both state and federal court to resolve issues after lengthy negotiations failed to produce agreements.

There are four lawsuits that have been filed over the past few months between the city and Start Skydiving.

Open meetings lawsuit

John P. Hart III, a co-owner of Start Skydiving, filed a civil complaint on Dec. 28 in Butler County Common Pleas Court against the city of Middletown and Council members Talbott Moon, Monica Nenni, Joe Mulligan and Ami Vittori alleging that Middletown City Council illegally went into executive session on Nov. 13, Dec. 1 and Dec. 15, 2020 to consider the lease of public property.

Mayor Nicole Condrey was not listed as a defendant as she abstained during the vote to go into executive session and did not participate in the discussion. She is limited by an Ohio Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion due to her past employment and current affiliation with Team Fastrax, a skydiving team also operated by the Hart family.

He is seeking, among other things, for actions from the sessions to be invalidated, an injunction against the city from entering executive session to consider leases of public property and an injunction directing full meeting minutes be prepared from those three executive sessions.

His father and fellow co-owner, John P. Hart II, successfully filed a similar lawsuit June 23 over claims that the city Airport Commission failed to promptly prepare meeting minutes for six meetings in 2019 and 2020. He also alleged a recommendation was not properly voted on before being sent to City Council.

The city and Hart reached a negotiated settlement on that previous lawsuit.

Middletown complaint and eviction notice

On Jan. 7, Middletown filed a civil complaint against Start Skydiving and Selection Management Systems, Inc., for declaratory judgment and other relief in Butler County Common Pleas Court. In addition, it also filed an eviction notice for Start to vacate the office space in Hangar 1707 which is used for the airport manager and Fixed-Base Operator.

Start Skydiving was given access to the space when it served as the airport manager and the fixed-base operator. However, Start has not served in either capacity for more than a year,

City officials allowed Start to remain in that space as productive conversations happened between Start Skydiving and the city toward resolution of real estate and operational issues among them.

Federal lawsuit filed by Start Skydiving

Start Skydiving filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati late last year against the city, Matt Eisenbraun, assistant economic development director who oversees the airport, and Dan Dickten, former airport manager.

Start said that “this case is about the ongoing vindictive, corrupt, and deceitful attempts by the City and its key personnel to kick Start out of the airport and to harm its business, despite Start’s 20-year lease at the airport which runs through 2029.”

Start alleged city personnel hacked into Start’s online financial database to spy on Start and steal its business data in violation of Start’s civil rights under federal law, spread false and defamatory statements about Start’s operations and made up claims of unsafe operations by Start that were not true. The company also raised claims about ongoing lease issues with the city.

Criminal complaint against past, present city employees

Three current or former Middletown employees were charged with last month following a criminal investigation by police.

Middletown police were contacted Sept. 15 by John Hart II of Start Skydiving, who alleged hacking, corporate economic espionage and illegal recordings by city employees at the Middletown Regional Airport.

The investigation was completed Dec. 8 and was reviewed by an outside prosecutor for charges. Hart II signed the complaint Dec. 22.

Those charged include:

Eisenbraun for failure to report a crime, a second-degree misdemeanor. He remains an active city employee.

Dickten for unauthorized use of property and obstruction of justice, both fourth-degree misdemeanors. He was also charged with two counts of aggravated menacing, both first-degree misdemeanors. This incident is unrelated to the investigation, but Dickten is alleged to have menaced an airport tenant and his wife on July 31. He retired from the city in August.

Ashley Schulte, for complicity to unauthorized use of property. Schulte, who formerly worked for Start Skydiving, allegedly gave Dickten her account access information to Start’s computer system. Schulte now works for Safe Skies Aviation, the interim fixed-base operator at the airport. She also filed a separate federal lawsuit against the city for unpaid wages and an EEOC complaint against Dickten.

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