Despite ruling, county manager meddles in airport affairs, airport chairman says
In a ruling issued last July that could cost Island taxpayers more than $870,000, a Superior Court judge affirmed the statutory authority of the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission, and not the Dukes County commissioners or their manager, over airport affairs.
But with a county appeal of treble damages still pending before Superior Court Judge Robert H. Bohn Jr., the Dukes County manager has continued to involve himself in the management of airport affairs — despite having no legal authority to do so, in the view of the airport commission chairman and the airport's manager.
The effort by E. Winn Davis, Dukes County manager, to exert his influence over airport affairs was highlighted in a recent series of often contradictory e-mails he sent only to county officials but not to Jack Law, chairman of the airport commission or acting airport manager Sean Flynn.
The subject of the e-mails was a plan by the airport commission to carry forward to the current fiscal year $138,000 allocated in the 2005 fiscal year budget. Mr. Davis claimed that the "carry forward" had raised the concerns of the county's outside auditors and must first be approved by the county finance advisory board. Mr. Davis insisted the issue was only about following the proper procedures.
Jack Law, chairman of the airport commission, said that the latest dispute is not about money and arose from the county's desire to maintain a level of control over airport spending. He said the money was placed in the 2005 budget to be used for a special wastewater truck.
"That equipment is no longer needed," Mr. Law said, "so instead of buying one big truck, we are going to buy several vehicles that we need. The county's objection, in my opinion, is a just a power play."
Mr. Davis told The Times that the issue is not power, but rather legal procedure. He said the county auditors told him that the airport could not carry forward funds and use them for a different purpose without coming before the finance advisory board for another appropriation.
"It's kind of like having a town meeting," said Mr. Davis. "You can't change how you are going to spend the money that was appropriated at a town meeting without going back to the appropriating authority for another vote."
Judge was clear
It was the effort by Carol Borer, former county manager, and the county commissioners to bring the airport commission to heel over the setting of salaries for the airport manager and assistant manager that spawned the legal dispute decided by Judge Bohn.
The Dukes County commissioners had insisted that they, and not the members of their appointed airport commission, had the authority to set the salaries of their professional airport manager and assistant manager.
On July 18, Judge Bohn found that the contracts signed by former airport manager Bill Weibrecht and Sean Flynn, the assistant and current acting airport manager, with the airport commission were valid and enforceable agreements and that the airport commission has the statuary authority to run the airport and appropriate airport funds.
In his 30-page ruling Judge Bohn highlighted the grant assurances, or contract agreements, that defined the conditions for the airport and business park to receive millions of dollars in state and federal funds and required that the county commissioners and their paid manager not interfere with the "powers, authority and responsibilities" of the airport commission, as provided for by state law.
Commenting on the effect of the grant assurances signed by both the county and airport commissioners in relation to the salary dispute, the judge wrote, "Finally, even if the county commissioners could be deemed to possess the authority under the [county charter] to constrain the airport commission's fixing of the plaintiffs' salaries, the county commissioners forfeited their right to do so by executing the grant assurances."
It was an expensive legal lesson for county officials, one that will be paid for by county taxpayers who must foot the bill, which, when combined with back wages, triple damages, and legal fees for all concerned, so far comes to $871,000.
The latest volley between the county manager and the airport commission came on October 3, when Mr. Davis sent an e-mail to the county commissioners and the county finance advisory board, which includes one selectmen from each Island town. The e-mail was not sent to Mr. Flynn, or to the airport commissioners. The subject of the e-mail read: "why the advisory board oversight is important."
Mr. Davis wrote, "With the advent of the auditor's exit interview last week, one glaring point became all the more important - the need for oversight by the advisory board."
Mr. Davis pointed to a drop in the airport's unreserved funds to $232,000 in fiscal year 2005.
"What makes the $232,000 number so worrisome, is that it would have been down to $94,000 had the airport held money to spend over the fiscal years for a different purpose than originally appropriated," wrote Mr. Davis.
Raising a position argued by the county's lawyer and rejected by Judge Bohn, he also warned that if the airport were to experience a budget shortfall, the county would be responsible for picking up the bill. "This is why the advisory board's role in an oversight capacity is so important," he wrote.
In an Oct. 5 letter addressed to Mr. Davis, the finance advisory board, the county commission, and the airport commission, Mr. Flynn questioned Mr. Davis's injection into the airport's budget issues. He wrote, "In general, I found the e-mail to be misplaced in light of the recent court decision, and it can only be construed as an attempt to solicit further conflict between the airport and the county, or to lobby the finance advisory board to join the current conflict."
Mr. Flynn continued, "It seems that another line is being drawn as to [who is] the appropriating authority of the various boards. You need not look any further than the current court decision to find the answer to that question."
Mr. Flynn also questioned Mr. Davis's assertion that the auditors had raised concerns. He wrote, "The auditor's exit interview last week drew no negative conclusions about the financial condition of the airport. In fact, while not specifically said, it shows that the airport is doing very well."
Control, not money
This week, Mr. Flynn said that although Judge Bohn spoke directly to salary appropriations, his ruling also answered the question of who has authority over airport budget appropriations. "It is clear from state statues, grant assurances, and Judge Bohn's ruling that the airport commission has the power of appropriation over its funds," said Mr. Flynn.
Mr. Flynn said the airport does not function anything at all like a town government, as described by Mr. Davis, because the appropriating authority is the airport commission. He added that the county auditors never informed him that there was any problem with the way the airport had treated its carry forwards and budget appropriations. "This issue has never been raised by anyone except Mr. Davis," said Mr. Flynn.
Notwithstanding the county manager's concerns, on Oct. 5, the airport commission voted to carry the $138,000 forward from the previous year's budget, without going before the county finance advisory board. The vote was 5-1 in favor of the appropriation. County employee T.J. Hegarty of West Tisbury, the county's rodent control officer, was the sole vote against the motion.
According to a copy of the draft minutes of the meeting, Mr. Davis attended the meeting, but did not debate the issue. "Winn Davis advised that it was better to leave this debate to reduce further friction between the airport and the county," the minutes state.