County commission looks to fill a seat on the airport commission

Against the backdrop of a legal battle with the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, the Dukes County commissioners have the opportunity to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation last week of Peter Bettencourt of West Tisbury. The county commission is responsible for appointments to the airport commission, which by statute is responsible for the county-owned airport.

“I hereby resign from the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, effective immediately,” Mr. Bettencourt said in a letter received August 11. “I find that I am no longer able to give the increased time commitment that the role of commissioner now requires.”

Mr. Bettencourt, retired Edgartown town manager and an experienced pilot, was in the middle of a three-year term scheduled to expire in 2016.

The county commission met last Wednesday, August 13, and voted to advertise for airport commission candidates. They set a closing date of August 29 for letters of interest.

“I would urge the commission to move the process along as swiftly as possible,” county commissioner Christine Todd of Oak Bluff said. “We’ve got some pretty big issues on the table at the airport, and I think it’s critical to get some new blood in there.”

The county commission and the airport commission have been embroiled in a series of disputes through the winter and spring. In April, county commissioners, upset at the disciplinary process that led to the decision to fire airport employee Beth Tessmer, ousted airport commissionersJohn Alley of West Tisbury, who sat on both commissions for more than three decades, and Ben Hall Jr. of Edgartown, an attorney who served one term on the airport commission.

The county commissioners appointed their fellow commissioner Ms. Todd to fill one open seat and appointed Richard Michelson, a former airport employee and union leader, who has been sharply critical in the past of airport management.

Ms. Tessmer, named both the airport and county commissions, as well as individual commissioners, in a lawsuit alleging slander, defamation, discrimination, and retaliation.

The issue reached a pitch when county commission chairman Leonard Jason Jr. called on all airport commissioners to resign — a call they rebuffed.

Over the years, county unhappiness with its airport commission has led the county to bypass individuals with business and aviation experience and self-appoint county commissioners and  individuals more in line with the county view, including a county employee, to the airport commission.

The courts have continually upheld the independence of the airport commission, most recently on August 9, when a superior court judge issued a preliminary injunction, enjoining county manager Martina Thornton from sitting as a non-voting member of the airport commission, and ordering county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders to pay invoices approved by the airport commission.