Airport salary dispute redux
An attorney for Sean Flynn, the newly hired manager of the Martha's Vineyard Airport, fired the opening legal shot against the Dukes Country commissioners over their refusal to honor the terms of an employment contract signed by Mr. Flynn and the airport commission.
The latest dispute is rooted in the statutory authority of the airport commission and in the language of a decision by a Dukes County Superior Court judge last July, which affirmed the authority of the airport commission to hire employees on terms agreed to by the airport commissioners and the employee.
In a letter dated Jan. 25 and addressed to the airport commission, Harry Beach of Norwood, Mr. Flynn's attorney, said that the county's position violates the previous Superior Court ruling and is "clearly and demonstrably wrong.... The county's misconduct, as before, subjects the airport commission and the county to suit in the Superior Court for damages," he wrote.
Mr. Beach gave the county until Feb. 10 to propose a resolution. If none is reached, he said that he would file a "right to sue" letter, and would begin the process of a civil complaint against the county.
Yesterday, county manager Winn Davis refused to comment on the matter. Asked if the county has responded to Mr. Beach's letter, he said that it has been referred to the county's legal counsel. John Alley, county commission chairman, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The letter from Mr. Beach comes on the heels of a letter, signed by Mr. Davis and Noreen Mavro Flanders, county treasurer, and sent to the airport commission chairman Jan. 12. The county officials wrote that the county would not pay Mr. Flynn according to the terms of an employment contract signed between Mr. Flynn and the airport commission on Jan. 6. Instead, the county officials said Mr. Flynn, former assistant airport manager, would be paid according to the county pay system.
It was the refusal of Carol Borer, the former county manager, to pay the full salaries agreed to in an employment contract between the airport commission and William Weibrecht, former airport manager, and Mr. Flynn in 2000 that led to the Superior Court lawsuit.
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 could cost the county more than $800,000. The county has since filed a motion for reconsideration of the portion that imposes the triple damages.
In his letter, Mr. Beach emphasized the Superior Court decision and the possibility that the county was further exposed as a result of the comments made by a county official that he did not identify by name.
Mr. Beach wrote, "The county's misconduct, as before, subjects the airport commission and the county to suit in the Superior Court for damages. This misconduct is aggravated by the defamatory public remarks made against Sean by a county official, and by the county's misguided assertion that the Superior Court is not a court 'of competent jurisdiction.' Under the circumstances, a finding of bad faith is a given and will lead to an award against the airport commission and county for additional treble damages, attorneys' fees, and costs."
Yesterday, Jack Law, airport commission chairman until three weeks ago, said that the county should heed Mr. Beach's letter. "Sean's contract is a good contract and I think the county should honor it and pay for it," he said. "If they don't, I think it's pretty obvious that it is going to lead to another lawsuit."
In 2000, the airport commissioners hired Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn. Marc Villa, airport commission chairman at the time, insisted that the airport commission, which is appointed by the county, had the statutory right to set the airport managers' salaries. Ms. Borer, with the support of the county commissioners, insisted that the men were county employees subject to the county pay scale, and she refused to pay the men their full salaries.
Stymied by Ms. Borer, but with the support of several airport commission members, Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn filed suit against the airport commission and county commission, setting up a courtroom situation in which the airport commission was paying lawyers on both sides.
In the previous case, Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn had the support of the airport commission. Exactly what sort of support Mr. Flynn can count on remains unclear in light of recent county actions that have gutted the airport commission, which is now reduced to two members, down from seven.
Last month, only 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 on Jan. 17 and rescinded the appointments.
That action prompted the immediate resignations of veteran airport commissioners Frank Daly of Tisbury and William Mill of Tisbury. An existing vacancy already existed following the decision of T.J. Hegarty, county rodent control agent, not to seek reappointment.
The only two remaining airport commissioners are Mr. Alley and Norman Perry, both of West Tisbury. Both men had voted against hiring Mr. Flynn in December.
The county is currently seeking applicants to fill the five vacant seats on the airport commission. Applications are due on Feb. 10.
In May, while the case against the county was still pending, Mr. Weibrecht resigned as the airport manager. Mr. Flynn was appointed interim manager and the airport commission began a search for a permanent replacement.
In June, the airport commission and the county commission agreed that when a new airport manager was hired, his salary would conform to the county employee pay scale, and that the airport commission would not sign a separate employment contact with him.
A month later, Superior Court Judge Robert Bohn Jr. issued his ruling against the county, upholding the authority of the airport commission to set the salaries of its managers.
On the basis of that ruling, the airport commission decided they were no longer bound by their agreement with the county, and they voted to sign a contract with Mr. Flynn as the new airport manager. The contract provided Mr. Flynn with an annual salary of $89,000, along with a five percent annual cost of living increase.
The county commissioners opposed the airport commission's decision to enter into a contract with Mr. Flynn. They argued that the airport must honor its agreement from June, regardless of the judge's decision.
In their letter to the airport commission refusing to honor the contract, the county said that it 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 the five percent annual raises.
Mr. Davis told The Times last month that the county's position was based on advice from Michael Gilman, county legal counsel, who argued and lost the case in Superior Court.