Judge rules for county, trimming lawsuit costs
A state Superior Court judge on Monday set aside a portion of the July 14, 2005 decision that found that the Dukes County Commissioners had improperly withheld pay due the county airport's manager and assistant manager, in a dispute with the airport commission over which agency had authority to negotiate compensation with airport employees.
The May 22 order by Justice Richard T. Moses will save the county about $344,942, two-thirds of a triple damages judgment in favor of William Weibrecht, the former airport manager, and Sean Flynn, the former assistant manager who is now manager.
The county must still pay a total of approximately $172,471 in back wages and interest to the two men, plus $89,111 in legal fees incurred by the two airport managers. In addition, the airport commission and the county must pay legal fees for their own defense of the lawsuit brought by Mr. Flynn and Mr. Weibrecht. And Justice Moses ordered that the awards of attorneys fees and costs must be paid by the county, but not from airport funds.
"We have and are currently reviewing the Superior Court's final judgment. We are very pleased that the court has found that Bill and Sean's employment agreements with the airport commission were, and are, 'valid and enforceable' and we are pleased that the court has awarded them substantial back pay, interest and attorneys' fees," Harry C. Beach, attorney for Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn, said in a statement faxed to The Times yesterday. "While we are pleased with the outcome, we are awaiting the reaction of the county and airport commission. We also have our own options under consideration."
Still a bunch of money
Reducing earlier calculations of the cost to the county of the battle with the airport commission and its two employees by the amount of the reduction in damages, the total, including legal fees for the airport and county, reaches approximately $525,000.
Relief from the treble damages awarded by Judge Robert H. Bohn Jr., the trial judge in the matter, came in response to a motion filed by the county. The county argued that a Supreme Judicial Court decision, which followed Judge Bohn's July 2005 finding, held that awards of triple damages were at the discretion of the trial judge. Judge Bohn, who has since died, made his ruling before the SJC decision, and he was of the opinion that treble damages were required in such matters, according to Justice Moses.
Justice Moses found that the SJC held "that treble damages were punitive in nature and allowed only where authorized by statute where conduct is outrageous because of the defendant's evil motive or reckless indifference to the rights of others." The justice held that the county commissioners' fierce defense of their prerogative to set salary structures, not only for direct county employees but also for the airport, was evidence that their failure to pay the agreed wages showed that "the actions of the defendants[the county] in this matter are not outrageous, reckless nor motivated by evil motives."
Justice Moses affirmed the independent authority of the airport commission to set and pay salaries to employees, and he affirmed all of the other findings in Judge Bohn's decision.
A political power struggle
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.
Judge Bohn found that the contracts signed by Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn 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."
Mr. Beach, the attorney for the two plaintiffs, allowed himself to look ahead to the end of legal hostilities. "We are hopeful," he said, "that the process may finally be drawing to a conclusion after many years of strife. In the meantime Bill and Sean, along with their families, wish to express their sincerest gratitude to the many Islanders, airport users and especially the airport staff who have expressed their support throughout this very unfortunate ordeal."
Winn Davis, Dukes County manager, was also looking to the future and not to the past. Reached yesterday afternoon in his office, Mr. Davis described the judgment as a footnote in a chapter that is closed.
"Sean [Flynn] and I look forward to working together, and the new airport commission and the county commission are working together and we just want to focus on the positive improvements and growth for the county," said Mr. Davis. "It is what it is but I am much more interested in where we go from here."