If you are a Dukes County taxpayer you might ask yourself this question: what has the county done for me lately? If you answered not a thing, you are partially incorrect.
The county commissioners, through their meddling in airport affairs, have embroiled you in a senseless legal struggle that has already cost county taxpayers $19,000, directly in the form of county legal bills, and indirectly, more than $62,000 and rising, in the form of airport monies diverted from better aviation uses. And there is no indication that it will end soon.
The county commissioners appoint the seven members of the airport commission who by state statute are responsible for the “care and custody” of the airport. The county’s overriding responsibility is to appoint the most qualified individuals. Its authority over the airport begins and ends with its appointment power. But the county commissioners seem to have not gotten that message.
They did not get it in 1997 when the director of the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission (MAC) told county commissioners that, despite the provisions of the Dukes County charter, managerial oversight of the airport by the county manager and any reorganization plan which might eliminate the independent airport commission would be unlawful and could jeopardize $8 million in grants that would eventually transform the old ramshackle airport terminal into a new modern facility.
They did not get it when state and federal airport officials, as a condition of future funding, required the county commissioners to sign “grant assurances,” which curtailed the authority of the county commissioners and the county manager over all airport affairs and put it squarely with the airport commission.
And not in 2002 when the MAC chairman warned that the refusal of the county manager and county treasurer to pay newly hired airport manager Bill Weibrecht his agreed upon salary could end up costing the Island one of the most respected airport managers in New England, and upset a “remarkable turnaround” at the county-owned airport.
And they did not get it in 2005 when Superior Court Judge Robert H. Bohn ruled that the legislation establishing the airport commission trumped the county charter, and the airport commission alone is responsible for the custody, control, and management of the airport, and is empowered to expend its own funds to pay salaries. By the way, that legal lesson cost county taxpayers $525,000.
Why, a taxpayer might ask, doesn’t the county get it? For some insight we refer you to a Letter to the Editor published July 2, from county commissioner Tristan Israel, who took The Times to task for continually referencing the Bohn decision in its reporting.
“The Times seems stuck back in 2006,” Mr. Israel wrote. “That is the year the Italians won the World Cup and George Bush was still president and Barry Bonds broke Ruth’s all-time home run record and the Wii was introduced by Nintendo and the movie Pirates of the Caribbean was released and Cold Play was big on the charts and reality TV was hitting its stride. And, ah yes, the County Commissioners were in litigation with the Airport Commissioners. We are reminded almost weekly by the Times of this fact. A fact that holds no bearing or basis for comparison with current issues even though they would have you think so by repeating the 2006 story over and over again, in story after story, and editorials as well.”
No bearing or basis? Fast forward to 2014. County commissioners unhappy with the airport commission’s bungling performance in its recent discipline of an employee pressed to have their county manager sit on the airport commission as a nonvoting member. The county treasurer attempted to exert control over the payment of airport bills. To defend its statutory authority, the airport commission, with the support of the Mass Aeronautics Commission, sought relief from the court. The county countersued.
As Steve Myrick reports this week, in an 11-page decision dated August 7, Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin ruled in favor of the airport commission on every point in its request for a preliminary injunction based on his view that the airport commission has shown “a likelihood of success on the merits.”
In his decision, Judge Chin continually cited Judge Bohn. He denied an airport commission request to dismiss the county commission’s counterclaim, but it should not take a legal scholar to digest the meaning of a “likelihood of success.” The smart course, the responsible course, would be for the county commission to call it a day.
The resignation last week of Peter Bettencourt of West Tisbury from the airport commission leaves an opening on the seven-member board. Discussing the appointment process, and with no hint of irony, county commissioner and self-appointed airport commissioner Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs 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 Island is rich in talent. The county needs to meet its responsibility to appoint the best person for the job and step out of the way.