County lacked authority to reverse appointments
An attorney for the Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission provided a legal opinion yesterday stating that the Dukes County Commissioners lacked the legal authority to rescind the appointment of two airport commissioners last month.
On Jan. 11 the county commissioners reappointed Jack Law of Oak Bluffs, former airport commission chairman, and Les Leland of West Tisbury, a county and airport commissioner, to the airport commission. Six days later,on Jan. 17, the commissioners voted to rescind the appointments.
Mr. Law asked for a legal opinion on the county's action from Kevin Batt, an attorney with the Boston firm of Edwards Angell Palmer and Dodge.
In a letter to Mr. Law dated Feb. 15, Mr. Batt wrote, "The short answer is that a court would likely find that the county commissioners do not have the authority to remove Mr. Law and Mr. Leland before the end of their terms."
Mr. Batt said that the terms began on Jan. 11 when the county originally reappointed the two men to the airport commission. He said that state law provides no provision for the county to back out of its airport commission appointments after they have been made. "If an official's term in office is fixed by state law for a definite period, he may not be removed unless state law also provides authority for his removal before the term expires...," he said. "In this case [state law] fixes the terms of the airport commissioners to three years and does not grant the county commissioners a concomitant authority to revoke their appointment."
The county can only remove officers and employees that are created under the county charter, according to Mr. Batt. "The removal power of the county is limited to the offices, positions, and employments created, altered or abolished by the county," he wrote. "The removal power does not extend to offices created by state law, such as the airport commission.... This interpretation of the limited statutory powers of the county commission to appoint, but not remove, airport commissioners is consistent with the statutory framework governing local airports."
Mr. Batt is familiar with the rocky relationship between the county and the airport commission. He represented the airport commission in the long-running legal dispute over the salaries of the airport manager and assistant manager.
In that case, the two professional managers sued the county in 2000 for refusing to honor the terms of the employment contracts that they signed in good faith with the airport commission.
The case went to court and last July a Superior Court judge 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.
The judge also slapped the county with a hefty bill. In total, including back wages, triple damages, and legal fees, the defeat cost the county more than $800,000. The county has since filed a motion for reconsideration of the portion that includes the triple damages.
Mr. Leland was expected to provide his fellow county commissioners with a copy of Mr. Batt's letter when the commission met to appoint five new airport commissioners. Not clear are what procedural entanglements may lie ahead if the commissioners move to fill all five spots.