County moves again to clip airport's wings
The Dukes County commissioners on Tuesday rescinded two appointments made six days earlier to the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission.
The unprecedented decision to remove Jack Law, chairman of the airport commission, and Leslie Leland, who is a county commissioner and an airport commissioner, is only the latest example of the county commissioners using their power of appointment to punish members of the airport commission during their long-running clash with the body that by state statute has sole responsibility for airport affairs and management.
The county commissioners have also drawn criticism during the appointment process for repeatedly bypassing candidates for the airport commission who had extensive business and aviation experience but no county ties in favor of people with little aviation expertise thought to be more favorable to the county viewpoint, including their fellow county commissioners.
In January 1999, the commissioners refused to reappoint Ken Eber of Chilmark, a private pilot and, before he retired, the manager of a large Wall Street securities company. Mr. Eber said his support of then chairman Marc Villa in his battle with the county and insistence on sound business accounting practices was his downfall.
At the time, Mr. Eber said he was initially "appalled" by what he found after attending his first few airport commission meetings, but was proud of his contributions and the airport commission's efforts to implement management and financial controls and put new policies in place.
In January 2001, a majority of county commissioners voted not to reappoint Robert "Spike" Smith of West Tisbury, a plumber and pilot and the youngest member of the commission. Mr. Smith, a former captain in the Edgartown fire department, was seen as the voice of a younger generation and a valuable asset when discussing emergency procedures. At the time, he said his unwillingness to play politics had made him "the fall guy" over the airport commission's vote to seek an opinion from the attorney general in its dispute with the county.
In January 2003 the county commissioners failed to reappoint Tim Carroll of Chilmark, former airport commission chairman. Mr. Carroll, a former county commissioner, long-time airport commission member and experienced town administrator had moved from support of the county position to become a strong supporter of an independent airport commission. In comments at the time, he said the message was clear that he and other members of the airport commission who were unwilling to do as the county commissioners want would not be reappointed when their terms expired.
In January 2003 the commissioners also struck back at their chief nemesis and removed Marc Villa of Chilmark, a decorated Vietnam era military pilot, successful businessman and private pilot who led the transformation of the airport and business park.
During Mr. Villa's tenure as chairman, the new airport terminal reconstruction was started and completed, a new budget put in place, professional airport manager hired, union contract signed, and review of airport accounting begun, which led to the recapture of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
When he failed to win reappointment 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.
The latest skirmish between the county and airport commission is rooted in the transformation more than a decade ago of the county 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.
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.
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.
But efforts by the county commissioners and the first county manager to exercise more direct control over the airport faltered when state officials threatened to withhold funding for a badly needed new terminal.
In September 1998, the Dukes County commissioners agreed to and signed a contract with the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission (MAC) guaranteeing millions of dollars in state funding for a new Martha's Vineyard Airport terminal and general aviation building. Those grant assurances curtailed the authority of the county commissioners and the county manager over all airport affairs and put it squarely with the airport commission.
The stage for a clash was set when the county commissioners began appointing individuals with few ties to county government, in particular Mr. Villa, who unseated long-time chairman and county commissioner John Alley as chairman.
At the time Mr. Villa expressed his determination to lead in an independent direction and assert the authority of the commission as defined in the grant assurances and by state statute. The outspoken Mr. Villa vigorously resisted the efforts of Carol Borer, county manager, to meddle in airport affairs, leading to the costly legal battle over the right of the airport commission to set the salaries of the airport manager and assistant manager, which was settled in favor of the airport commission last year.
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 and removed Robert "Spike" Smith. During the same round of appointments the county commissioners appointed George 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.
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, as now, a county and airport commission member - 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.
At the time, Jack Law, who was ousted this week, said he decided to seek the appointment because he thought he could serve the county in "whatever way they need help."
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 one of only two members of the airport commission, along with John Alley.
In a decision entered on July 18, 2005, Superior Court Judge Robert H. Bohn Jr. ruled that the Dukes County commissioners were wrong to insist that they, and not the members of their appointed Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission, had the authority to set the salaries of their professional airport manager and assistant manager.
It was an expensive legal lesson for county officials, but the real cost may have been in the loss of experienced airport commissioners due to a struggle that continued to play out this week.
The resignation of Mr. Mill and long-time commissioner Frank Daly of Tisbury from the airport commission Tuesday left the county commissioners with five vacancies to fill on the seven-member board.