Dukes County commissioners rejected the reappointment of two airport commissioners, citing a bitter conflict over the firing of an airport employee.
A simmering dispute, stirred by a combative relationship between Martha’s Vineyard Airport management and its union employees, and fueled by a continuing feud rooted in the legal divisions between the airport and the Dukes County commissions, erupted on Wednesday, April 9, when the county commissioners voted not to re-appoint two members of the airport commission.
In a sharply divided vote and disputed procedure, the county commission rejected the applications of Benjamin Hall Jr., and John Alley to three-year terms on the seven-member airport commission. Mr. Alley, a Dukes County commissioner, has served on both the county commission and the airport commission for more than three decades. Mr. Hall, an Edgartown businessman, was finishing his first term.
Instead, the county commissioners appointed Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, a county commissioner, to the airport commission. They also appointed Richard Michelson, a former airport employee now on disability retirement, who helped organize airport employees to form a union and served as shop steward. He has been a frequent and vocal critic of airport management.
Furor over firing
The latest clash between the airport and county commissioners began on November 8, 2013, when Mr. Flynn suspended longtime airport employee Beth Tessmer for two weeks, without pay.
Ms. Tessmer filed a complaint on January 15, 2014 with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging eight specific instances of discrimination, including some charges related to the most recent disciplinary action, and others, unrelated, dating back to 2005.
Ms. Tessmer was formerly a union employee and served as shop steward. In August of 2013, she was promoted to a newly defined management position.
The airport commission held a disciplinary hearing on January 24. The airport commission wanted to hold the hearing in executive session, but Ms. Tessmer exercised her legal right to hold the hearing in public session.
Testimony from both sides was at times awkward, with several oblique references to issues the participants said they could not talk about, because it would violate privacy laws, including laws which prohibit release of private medical information.
At the outset of the meeting, Mr. Alley outlined the ground rules.
“In open session, individuals may only speak when recognized by the chair,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “The rights the employee has in executive session do not exist in open session. However, I will permit the employee to speak on her own behalf and permit the employee to be advised by counsel. You may not participate as an active participant in the meeting.”
Ted Saulnier, former Tisbury police chief and now a practicing attorney, represents Ms. Tessmer. At one point during the disciplinary hearing, Mr. Alley objected as Mr. Saulnier conferred with his client, who submitted a statement in writing, but testified without a prepared statement.
“Please, would you not write things down as we go along,” Mr. Alley said, addressing Mr. Saulnier directly.
“Are you ordering me not to write, sir?” Mr. Saulnier responded.
“You can write all you want, but don’t read from the script,” Mr. Alley said.
“The only script I heard was from the airport manager and assistant manager,” Mr. Saulnier said.
At the end of the January 24 hearing, airport commissioners unanimously voted to uphold the suspension of Ms. Tessmer.
On February 12, the airport commission held another hearing, in response to a complaint from Mr. Saulnier that the January 24 disciplinary hearing was improperly posted, because some notices said that hearing was scheduled for 10 pm, not 10 am. In that hearing, they covered much of the same testimony, and again upheld the suspension.
On April 4, commissioners met in a special meeting that lasted 3 minutes and 23 seconds. Commissioners Constance Texeira, Denys Wortman, Peter Bettencourt, Norman Perry, and Mr. Alley voted to terminate Ms. Tessmer. Mr. Hall and commissioner James Coyne were not present.
“This is a difficult decision to make, but I think it’s in the best interest of the operations of the airport,” Mr. Bettencourt said.
Mr. Saulnier did not respond to phone messages asking for comment.
Appalled by meeting
“I’m not going to vote for any of the incumbents,” said county commissioner Tristan Israel at last Wednesday’s meeting of the county commission. “This is not about who’s right and wrong. I was appalled at the way that meeting was run, appalled at the lack of process.”
Mr. Israel, a Tisbury selectman, referred to the January 24 employee disciplinary hearing before the airport commission. “This is hard for me because I know and, believe it or not, care about the people that were there, including the guy I’m sitting with at this table,” Mr. Israel said, referring to his longtime county commission colleague, Mr. Alley.
“We’ve all had our personal opinions on subjects, and I respect that right,” Mr. Alley responded. “But when you’re a member of the board, you must be careful not to let what people believe to be true cloud the actual facts, without knowing actual facts. Your opinions are not valid to deny reappointment to the airport commission.”
The usual procedure for county appointments is for applicants to submit a letter asking to be appointed. Mr. Alley, Mr. Hall, and Mr. Michelson submitted letters that met the advertised deadline set by the county commission. Ms. Todd did not.
At the outset of the April 9 meeting, Ms. Todd, serving in her first term as county commissioner, announced she would be a candidate for the airport commission appointment.
“I think I would bring a fresh approach to the committee,” Ms. Todd said. “I’m convinced there needs to be some change there.”
Mr. Alley objected, saying the commission was not following its own procedures. Mr. Israel said a letter of intent did not amount to a nomination, and that the commission is free to nominate anyone to the airport commission.
On paper ballots, commissioners Tom Hallahan and Melinda Loberg joined Mr. Israel and Ms. Todd in voting to appoint Ms. Todd and Mr. Michelson.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Alley said he was displeased with the process. “I thought it was bad government, if you don’t follow the process that you, the county commission, established,” Mr. Alley said. “I handled the hearings to the best of my ability. Yes, they were contentious, but one had to be very careful that you follow all the applicable laws.”
Mr. Hall offered muted criticism in a phone conversation Monday. “The Dukes County commissioners had the right to appoint anyone they want,” he said. “While the procedure was a little bit flawed, I’m not going to challenge their wisdom.”
In a phone conversation Tuesday, asked about his previous criticism of airport management, Mr. Michelson said he will assume his new role with no personal animosity, but he will consider changes in airport management.
“I’m there to try to make things better, maybe make some changes in direction,” Mr. Michelson said. “What I need to do at this point is attend some meetings, do some research, get some information, then make some decisions on whether I think airport management needs to change.”
In a telephone interview on Wednesday, airport manager Sean Flynn was asked to comment on the new appointments. “The (county) commission appointments seemed to take a different course this time,” Mr. Flynn said. “We’ll have to deal with the cards we have. We’ll take the county’s appointments and work with their two appointees.”
Not the first time
Last week’s action was not the first time the county commission acted to ground incumbent airport commission members due to their unhappiness with airport commission actions. Over the years, the county commissioners have not hesitated to use their power of appointment to remove members of the airport commission with whom they disagreed during their frequent clashes with the airport commission, that by state statute has sole responsibility for airport affairs and management.
The tension between the county and airport commission is rooted in the transformation of the county from a regional government body led by an elected and unpaid three-member commission to a paid county manager form of government, under the control of an elected and unpaid seven-member commission.
At one time, the airport terminal was a crumbling World War II era building, the business park was littered with junk automobiles, and record keeping and the collection of rents and fees was an informal, poorly managed affair.
On Aug. 17, 1995, the newly elected members of the county commission appointed themselves to the then five-member airport commission, which already included two county commissioners, creating a nine-member airport commission. The self appointment, in possible violation of conflict of interest rules, was allowable due to special legislation filed in 1987, at the request of the county, that allowed county commissioners to also serve as airport commissioners for the state’s only county-owned airport.
But efforts by the county commissioners and the first county manager to exercise more direct control over the airport faltered when state officials threatened to withhold funding for a badly needed new terminal.
In September 1998, the county commissioners agreed to and signed a contract with the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission guaranteeing millions of dollars in state funding for a new Martha’s Vineyard Airport terminal and general aviation building.
Those grant assurances curtailed the authority of the county commissioners and the county manager over all airport affairs and put it squarely with the airport commission.
In January 2001, the county commissioners reduced the size of the airport commission. But notwithstanding the grant assurances, disagreements over authority continued, and in December 2002 the airport commissioners filed suit against Dukes County over the continuing refusal of the county manager to allow the airport manager William Weibrecht and then assistant manager Sean Flynn to be paid the full salaries agreed to in contracts signed by the airport commissioners. At issue was whether the county had authority over airport employees.
In their next round of appointments in January 2003, the county commissioners struck back. Bypassing individuals with aviation and business backgrounds and no county ties, the county commissioners appointed two county commissioners and a county employee to the airport commission.
In a decision entered on July 18, 2005, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Bohn Jr. ruled that the Dukes County commissioners were wrong to insist that they, and not the members of their appointed Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, had the authority to set the salaries of their professional airport manager and assistant manager.
It was an expensive legal lesson for county officials. Judge Bohn also slapped the county with a hefty bill. In total — including back wages, triple damages, and legal fees for all involved — the defeat totaled more than $800,000. The award of triple damages was later rescinded on appeal.