Art Smadbeck, Edgartown selectman and chairman of the County Advisory Board (CAB), which is responsible for overseeing the county budget, summed up the issue of the county-airport legal battle succinctly at a meeting held last week to discuss a county request for more money to throw after bad to pay the county’s lawyer.
“This was an airstrike the county called in on itself,” Mr. Smadbeck said of the lawsuit that continues to consume taxpayer dollars. How perfectly Mr. Smadbeck described it.
Of course, what Mr. Smadbeck meant is that the county commissioners could and should have easily foreseen that their actions to bring the county-appointed airport commission to heel would precipitate a lawsuit.
Instead, the county commissioners chose to ignore the terms of the funding guarantees that provided the airport with millions in state and federal dollars; they chose to ignore a 2005 decision by Superior Court Judge Robert H. Bohn that upheld the statutory authority of the airport commission; and they chose to ignore an August 7 decision by Associate Justice Richard Chin in which he ruled for the airport commission on every point in its request for a preliminary injunction against the county commission, county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders, and county manager Martina Thornton.
And if that was not enough, for good measure, on September 24 the county commission added another bull’s-eye when it expanded its appointed airport commission from seven to nine members. The bald-faced expansion, intended to tip the scales, attracted the attention of the Massachusetts Division of Transportation Aeronautics Division, which demanded an immediate explanation from the county commission chairman of the rationale behind the vote.
Following the county vote to expand, county commission chairman Lenny Jason Jr. declared that he expected to be sued. To no one’s surprise, the airport commission promptly sued the county commission to stop the expansion.
Last week, Mr. Jason, who has been in the thick of the county-airport fight, expressed astonishment at Mr. Smadbeck’s analogy. Mr. Smadbeck was uncowed. “When you make certain decisions, Lenny, that you know are going to get you into court, you are going to have legal bills.”
Edgartown, which pays the largest share of the county budget assessment, $179,386, has every reason to take an interest in county expenditures.
The CAB, made up of one selectman from each town, met last Wednesday because the county needs more money in its legal budget to shore up its legal defense and fight the challenge to its expansion of the airport commission. The meeting between the CAB and county commission, available for viewing on MVTV, the Island’s public access cable television channel, provided some reassuring moments for taxpayers who may despair at the sheer waste of their hard-earned dollars. The CAB rose to its fiduciary responsibility and quizzed the county commissioners on the details of the legal spending.
CAB member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, a West Tisbury selectman who watches tax dollars as though he was spending his own money, a welcome trait in an elected official, said he did not “believe in spending any more taxpayer dollars on this issue,” nor did he think it makes any difference to the people “which side wins or loses.”
But it does to Mr. Jason and his wingman, county commissioner Tristan Israel, who asked the CAB to keep funding the county defense, at least until the next ruling from Judge Chin. That would be the same Judge Chin who said in August that he granted the preliminary injunction based on his view that the airport commission has shown “a likelihood of success on the merits.”
CAB member Bill Rossi, a Chilmark selectman, added another voice of reason, rightly pointing out that in three months the county commissioners would have the opportunity, when airport commission terms expire, to make appointments. “You don’t have to spend any money if you appoint the right people,” Mr. Rossi said. Good advice for a government body that in the past has spurned well-qualified people in favor of those it imagined would toe the county line.
But do not look for the soap opera to end soon. One brief exchange promised more to come. Dukes County treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders, whose refusal to pay airport invoices in a timely manner and without interfering in airport affairs, and who was the subject of one of Judge Chin’s preliminary injunctions, told Mr. Smadbeck that she would need to spend money to defend her authority. If the CAB refused to spend the money, she said, “there will be another lawsuit.”
At one point in the meeting, Mr. Manter reminded the county commissioners that the CAB had said it would only authorize payment of legal bills incurred prior to October 7.
“Do you believe the county should just walk away from the lawsuit?” Mr. Jason asked.
The obvious answer is yes. But if this issue rested on the obvious, the county commissioners would not be embroiled in this battle.