Former airport commission chairmen see familiar pattern

The Martha's Vineyard Airport has been experiencing turbulence.
Photo by Steve Myrick

The Martha's Vineyard Airport has been experiencing turbulence.

Three people who once served as airport commissioners offer a perspective on the current turbulence at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

Several former members of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport commission, including two chairmen, all veterans of a costly legal battle with the Dukes County Commission over the statutory role of the county appointed airport commission, offered remarkably similar views of the current turbulence that last week led county commission chairman Lenny Jason, Jr. to ask members of the airport body to resign.

“It’s disheartening,” said Marc Villa of Chilmark, a former chairman of the airport commission who was ousted by county commissioners in 2003. “I don’t understand how it degenerates so fast.”

“It’s obviously deja vu all over again, to quote Yogi Berra,” said George Balco of Tisbury, who served briefly as chairman before he was voted out of the lead role. “It’s sad.”

“It looks like a rerun,” said Frank Daly of Tisbury, who served on the airport commission during the same period as Mr. Villa and Mr. Balco. “We’re just going into a repeat of what happened before.”

County commission unhappiness with its appointed airport commission is not new. It is rooted in efforts over the years to exercise control, often through the county manager, of the state’s only county-owned airport. The issue came to a head when state and federal aviation authorities tied millions of dollars in airport grants to assurances that the county would not interfere in airport affairs.

Over the years, the county commissioners have self appointed county commissioners to the airport commission or appointed individuals more in line with the county view. But until last week there was never been a call for a wholesale resignation.

It’s a mess

In 1997, the commissioners appointed Mr. Villa to the airport commission. A successful businessman and pilot, he served six years on the airport commission, three as chairman after wresting control from John Alley of West Tisbury, a longtime county and airport commissioner. During his tenure Mr. Villa engaged in a running battle with the former county manager, Carol Borer, and county commissioners over his insistence that the airport commissioners and not the county commissioners and their county manager had the sole statutory authority to control airport affairs, a position bolstered by state and federal grant guarantees, and later a superior court decision.

Mr. Villa was credited for many of the improvements at the airport, including the construction of a new terminal and more professional accounting procedures. When he failed to win reappointment in 2003 he said the county was only continuing a pattern of getting rid of qualified people who did not agree with the county view of how the airport should be managed. In a phone interview with The Times Tuesday, Mr. Villa said the current turbulence is a result of that practice.

More than once, Mr. Villa used the word disheartening to describe the current state of affairs between the county and airport commission.

“We had a coalition of individuals that was able to put the airport back together again,” Mr. Villa said. “We were able to wrestle control of it from the county commission, particularly from John Alley. We were very successful and we left it in good shape.

“They slowly, through attrition and effort, built it back up again with their own people and it’s a mess. There’s no question the county creates an airport commission that is a mirror image of themselves. They have to blame themselves for the mess.”

Mr. Villa is critical of the county commission for its recent appointments, including the appointment of one of their own members, Christine Todd, to the airport commission, and Richard Michelson, a former airport employee and union leader. Mr. Villa believes no one should serve on both boards at the same time.

“I fought that all the time, I didn’t think that was appropriate,” Mr. Villa said. “I fail to understand how you can appoint a fellow who was a union employee on disability as an airport commissioner. The county commissioners, if they really want to do their job, have to go out and solicit individuals to get in there with a particular set of skills, whether it’s an engineer, accounting, aviation. It doesn’t have to be all pilots, that wouldn’t work either.”

Mr. Daly, a civil engineer and businessman, agrees with that view. “The root of the problem is the county commissioners didn’t vet these people,” he said.  “You need business common sense. The airport is a business.”

Two masters

The latest skirmish between the county and airport commission is rooted in the transformation 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 in the 1990s.

At the 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. presided over by Mr. Alley.

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.

In January 2000, the county commissioners rejected an effort to reduce the size of the nine-member airport commission and end the practice of county commissioner self-appointments.

In January 2001, the county commissioners reduced the size of the airport commission.

During the same round of appointments the county commissioners appointed Mr. Balco, a member of the Tisbury finance advisory committee; William Mill, a former news reporter covering transportation who had moved to the Island from Connecticut five years earlier; and Richard Colson, a pilot.

At the time of his appointment to the airport commission, Mr. Balco brought a business background in financial analysis and investments to the board and ten years of experience on Tisbury’s finance and advisory committee.

Mr. Balco said when county commissioners appoint themselves to the airport commission, it creates problems. “How can you see it any way other than a conflict,” Mr. Balco said. “You can’t serve two masters working against each other. It makes it a joke.”

In December 2002, the airport commissioners agreed to file suit against Dukes County over the continuing refusal of the county manager to allow the airport manager and assistant manager to be paid the full salaries agreed to in contracts signed by the airport commissioners. Only John Alley — then, both a county and airport commission member at the time — voted against the action.

In their next round of appointments one month later, in January 2003, the county commissioners struck back. Bypassing individuals with aviation and business backgrounds and no county ties, the county commissioners appointed Mr. Alley; Nelson Smith of Edgartown, a newly elected county commissioner and land surveyor; T.J. Hegarty of West Tisbury, county rodent control officer; and Jack Law of Oak Bluffs, a manager at the R.M. Packer Company and a cousin of Noreen Mavro Flanders, Dukes County treasurer.

In January 2004, the county commissioners appointed Norman Perry of West Tisbury, chairman of the West Tisbury personnel board and a member of the Dukes County emergency management agency. Today, he is chairman of the airport commission.

Mr. Villa said county commissioners take too provincial a view when they make appointments.

“There’s a tendency to try to keep all of this stuff on-Island, with Island people,” Mr. Villa said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t qualified Island people, but quite often you have to bring in someone from outside. There’s also some apathy. It’s hard to get people to jump into the fray, partially because they don’t think they can do anything. The same names have been there for years, they don’t think they can deal with them.”