County strikes at airport commission to make it heel
Angry that the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission ignored an agreement made with the county concerning the hiring of a new airport manager, the Dukes County commissioners this week made a two-pronged assault that left the seven-member airport commission with only two members.
The first volley was fired behind closed doors Wednesday.
Meeting in executive session, the county commissioners endorsed a letter written by E. Winn Davis, county manager, telling the airport commissioners that the county will not honor an employment contract agreed to between the airport commission and new airport manager Sean Flynn.
The county took the action despite a ruling last July by a Superior Court judge who held that the airport commission by statute is solely responsible for the airport. The total cost to county taxpayers of that legal lesson could surpass $800,000.
On Tuesday, the county commissioners fired their second shot. Six days after reappointing Jack Law of Oak Bluffs, who had been the airport commission chairman, and Les Leland of West Tisbury, a county and airport commissioner, to the airport commission, the county commissioners called a special meeting Tuesday night and rescinded the appointments.
That action prompted the immediate resignations of veteran airport commissioners Frank Daly of Tisbury and William Mill of Tisbury.
In his letter of resignation, Mr. Mill, a retired journalist who specialized in transportation issues, wrote, "The actions taken by the Dukes County commission in removing dedicated members of the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission can only be viewed as a flagrant abuse of power. The county commission members, unable to seat themselves as the airport commission, have sidestepped their way onto the board by throwing out any member of the airport commission who does not vote the county commissioners' way. It has become routine for this commission to say 'our way or the highway.'"
A complete copy of
Mr. Mill's letter can be found here.
Another contract dispute
The catalyst for the latest battle occurred on Jan. 4, when the airport commission voted 5-1 to approve an employment contract for Sean Flynn, former assistant airport manager. Mr. Flynn was elevated to acting airport manager in May, following the departure of highly regarded airport manager William Wiebrecht, who said he had tired of the county's continued interference in the airport.
John Alley, longtime county commission chairman and airport commission vice chairman, was the lone dissenting vote.
The contract provided Mr. Flynn with an annual salary of $89,000, along with a five percent annual cost of living increase.
In their letter to the airport commissioners, the county commissioners said that the county would place Mr. Flynn on a pay and step scale within the county pay system, worth slightly more than $88,000, and would not pay him as a contracted employee, or provide a five percent annual raise.
A complete copy of the
letter can be found here.
It was the county's refusal to honor the terms of an employment contract signed between the airport commission and Bill Weibrecht, former airport manager, and Sean Flynn, assistant manager in 2000, that ended up with the two sides in Superior Court.
At the time, then county manager Carol Borer would only pay checks in an amount that met the county scale but was less than the full salaries agreed upon in the two employment contracts.
With the support of the airport commission, the managers sued their own airport commission, and together the men and the airport commission filed suit against the county commission, seeking triple back wages and attorneys' costs.
As both sides awaited an outcome, the airport commission began a search for a new airport manager to replace Mr. Weibrecht. In June, the airport commission and the county commission agreed that the airport manager's salary would conform to the county employee pay scale, and that the airport commission would not sign a separate employment contact with the new manager.
But in July, Superior Court Judge Robert Bohn Jr. ruled that the airport commission had the statutory authority to set the salaries of its professional managers, and that the county lacked the legal authority to interfere with the payment of those salaries.
Judge Bohn also slapped the county with a hefty bill. In total, including back wages, triple damages, and legal fees for all involved, the defeat cost the county more than $800,000. The county has since filed a motion for reconsideration of the portion which includes the triple damages.
On the basis of that ruling, Mr. Law and the airport commission decided they were no longer bound by the memorandum to seek county approval. The airport commissioners signed a contract with Mr. Flynn. Mr. Law said that the prior agreement with the county was an interim arrangement that allowed the board to move forward with the hiring of a new manager, absent a court decision. He called the agreement with the county commission "a stopgap."
The county disagreed, arguing that the airport must honor its agreement from June, regardless of the judge's decision.
Yesterday, E. Winn Davis, Dukes County manager, said that the county's position is based on advice from Michael Gilman, county legal counsel, who argued and lost in Superior Court.
Yesterday, airport manager Flynn would not comment on the details of the county letter. "It is under legal review by my attorney," he said.
In the meantime, Mr. Flynn will report to an airport commission charged with the care and custody of the Island's aviation gateway and business park, but now made up of two people.
Appointment muscles flexed
Last Wednesday, the county commissioners met to make four appointments to the seven-member airport commission. Only three people, all sitting airport commissioners and in two cases county commissioners, submitted letters seeking appointment.
Prior to the meeting, T.J. Hegarty, the county rodent control officer, submitted a letter declaring that he did not want to be reappointed. He also used the occasion to attack chairman Jack Law and his conduct of airport affairs.
At last week's meeting, the county commissioners voted to reappoint the three candidates seeking reappointment - Mr. Law, Mr. Leland, and Mr. Alley, leaving one vacancy for which there was no applicant.
On Thursday, county commissioners Nelson Smith of Edgartown and Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs said that they had changed their minds and no longer supported Mr. Law and Mr. Leland. They called for a special meeting Tuesday night.
Mr. Law and Mr. Leland only learned of the meeting on Monday. Mr. Leland, who could not attend, called the timing and lack of notice by his fellow commissioners "disgraceful."
Although no new information had surfaced about the candidates, on Tuesday, Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss said that they had not been well enough informed when they voted on the appointments six days earlier. Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss said that they did not support the process that the airport commission had followed when they hired Mr. Flynn and negotiated his contract.
Both Mr. Smith and Mr. Strauss stressed that their decision was not a reflection on Mr. Flynn, rather on the process by which he was hired.
The county commissioners voted 5-0 to rescind the appointments of Mr. Law and Mr. Leland. Voting in favor of the motion were: Mr. Smith, Mr. Strauss, Mr. Alley, Lenny Jason of Chilmark, and Robert Sawyer of Tisbury. Mr. Leland and Roger Wey, county commissioner from Oak Bluffs, were not present.
Following Tuesday's meeting, both ousted airport commissioners said they were disappointed by the county's actions.
"Normally when we hold a special meeting, the county manager will call each of the commissioners and make sure that we can attend the meeting," said Mr. Leland. "That never happened. I was never told about this meeting. I just found out about it by chance. I think that's disgraceful. I was one of the people being discussed, and I was never told about it."
Mr. Law said, "I think it was a bad move on the county's part. The airport commission didn't do anything wrong. We did everything according to the judge's decision. Because the county doesn't like that decision, we got the boot."
The two men also criticized the county for not honoring Mr. Flynn's employment contract.
"It is pretty clear that they don't agree with the judge," said Mr. Law. "If they aren't going to abide by the contract, then they aren't recognizing the authority of the airport commission."
Yesterday, another former airport commission chairman who failed to win reappointment said that he was not surprised by the county's decision to expel Mr. Law and Mr. Leland from the airport board.
Marc Villa of Chilmark, a businessman and private pilot who was a key leader in the transformation of the airport and business park, said, "During my tenure, particularly when I was chairman, if any efforts by an airport commissioner were contrary to the county's thought process, then the county wanted them off, and they would appoint new people."
Commenting on the matter of Mr. Flynn's contract, Mr. Villa said, "I was under the impression that the county commissioners would either accept the judge's ruling and allow the airport commission to function independently, or would appeal the decision. They haven't done either, and now we are right back to where we were before Judge Bohn made the ruling. I fail to understand why the county commissioners continue to interfere."
Mr. Villa added, "Some of this was humorous for a while, in watching Mr. Hegarty and other appointees of the county commission further screw up the airport commission's work, but it is no longer humorous. It is just a sad case and totally unacceptable county commission behavior. I firmly believe that for this reason, and others, the dissolution of county government is long overdue."
Mr. Flynn would say little about the county's recent actions, but said that he hopes they replace the ousted and resigned airport commissioners with equally qualified candidates.
"These four commissioners will be a great loss," said Mr. Flynn. "They were very community- and airport-minded people who worked very hard in the best interest of the airport and the community at large. The task at hand is to find people to fill these vacancies who are equally qualified so that the airport can move forward and conduct itself as it has."