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airport commission

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Under fire from the county, Norman Perry stepped back from a lead role, but will remain on the airport commission, as will his fellow members.

The Martha's Vineyard Airport commissioners have changed their leadership. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

In the face of withering criticism from the Dukes County commissioners, The Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission changed their leadership on Friday, June 27. The airport commissioners also rebuffed a call by the county to resign, and defended their recent actions as consistent with their statutory authority and the open meeting law.

Norman Perry, chairman of the airport commission since April, relinquished the chairman’s post at a 9 am meeting of the airport commission Friday morning. Mr. Perry notified his fellow commissioners of his decision to step down from the leadership post but remain on the commission in late-night email.

“It is with regret that I am resigning my position as Chairman due to personal reasons, effective immediately,” Mr. Perry wrote in an email to fellow commissioners at 11 pm, the night before the regular June 27 meeting. “However, I look forward to continuing to work with each of you as Airport Commissioner for the best interests of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. While my tenure as Chair was brief, it was fulfilling and I thank each of you for your support. Connie Teixeira, as Vice-Chair, will immediately assume the role of Chair.”

Ms. Teixeira opened the June 27 meeting with a stern tone.

“I have assumed his position as chair,” Ms. Teixeira said. “The meeting today will be governed by Roberts Rules of Order, which gives the chair custody of who is allowed to speak,” Ms. Teixeira said. “Anyone not acknowledged by the chair will not be able to speak at this meeting. There will be some changes in committees. At this time I’m not ready to make those changes.”

Newly appointed airport commissioner Christine Todd, who is also a county commissioner, questioned the process. The airport commission has no bylaws spelling out the process of succession.

“I was under the impression that we would elect a new chair,” Ms. Todd said. “I’m just wondering what the process is.”

“The process is, the vice-chair steps up, and we elect a new vice-chair,” Ms. Teixeira said.

The meeting was tense at times, but less confrontational than meetings held earlier this year, which drew widespread criticism of airport commissioners by members of the county commission.

Best practices

Members of the county commission have been highly critical of the airport commission for its handling of several public disciplinary hearings involving an airport employee.

At a county meeting on June 18, county commission chairman Leonard Jason Jr. asked the seven appointed members of the airport commission to resign. The longtime county commissioner modified his call in a letter dated June 19 addressed to the airport commissioners  in which he suggested that commissioners find something else to do. Mr. Jason asked for a response by July 1.

Airport commissioners approved a response but did not discuss the text of the letter or read it aloud. In response to a public records request, assistant airport manager Deb Potter provided a copy of the letter to The Times.

“We understand that your request that we ‘channel [our] energies in pursuit of a different endeavor’ is because you do not agree with recent decisions made by the Airport Commission,” chairman Teixeira said. “Your request is based on unspecified ‘behavior,’ ‘actions,’ and ‘conduct’ by any or all of the Airport commissioners. The Airport Commissioners have considered your request, and assert that it has at all times conducted itself in conformance with the requirement of the Open Meeting Law and consistent with long-standing Airport Commission best practices.

“Both the Airport Act and the Grant Assurances (which were signed by the County Commission) place the responsibility for the care and management of the Airport solely and exclusively in the hands of the Airport Commission. Collectively and individually, the Airport Commissioners understand what is at stake to the travelling public and the community. And collectively and individually, the Airport Commissioners intend to continue to discharge their responsibility until the completion of their statutory terms.”

Ms. Teixeira, Mr. Perry, Peter Bettencourt, Denys Wortman, and James Coyne voted in favor of the response.

Newly appointed airport commissioner and former airport employee Richard Michelson abstained. Mr. Michelson said he would send his own response to the county commission.

“As you know during the appointment process I explained my interest in helping the airport commission and airport management in improving and changing relationships with the employees, tenants, county and general public,” Mr. Michelson wrote in his undated reply provided by county manager Martina Thornton. “Although I feel we are starting to show some progress with some of these issues there is far too many things that need to be worked on. Therefore I will continue to focus on the future as one of your appointees on the MV airport commission.”

Ms. Todd voted against sending the response. She said she has already sent her own response.

The airport commission also distributed a draft of an airport employee policies and procedures handbook for discussion. Airport policies and procedures have been a sharp point of contention during recent disciplinary hearings and meetings. Beth Tessmer, a nine-year airport employee who was twice suspended and then fired earlier this year, has contended in a workplace discrimination lawsuit that the airport commission did not follow disciplinary procedures established for Dukes County employees.

Airport commission attorney Susan Whalen, speaking by conference call, advised commissioners to keep the document confidential, not to distribute it electronically, and not to share copies with outside advisors. Though distributed at a public meeting in open session, she maintained it is not a public record, because it falls under an exception to the Massachusetts Public Records Act concerning formulation of public policy.

“I would recommend that the commissioners keep their copy privileged and confidential,” Ms. Whalen said. “You’re obligated to maintain the confidential record of the public body.”

“I don’t see anything that is so secret, secret, that no one else in the world can look at it,” said Mr. Michelson, who has spoken forcefully in recent meetings about the need for a policies and procedures manual.

Ms. Potter denied a public records request to provide a copy of the draft manual.

“Under the advice of counsel, the draft administrative handbook and personnel policies is exempt from the public records law,” Ms. Potter wrote in a letter to The Times. “Accordingly, the administrative policy handbook will be available for disclosure after the next Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission meeting when it will be substantively discussed and voted on.”

The airport commission’s next meeting is scheduled for July 25.

The commissioners agreed to review the document and send comments to Ms. Potter by email.

The meeting was not without its lighter moments.

The commissioners agreed, at the suggestion of Mr. Michelson, to send an electronic survey to all airport stakeholders, including tenants, employees, pilots, and others, to gauge what they think about airport operations. Ms. Potter suggested using the popular Internet-based survey software known as Survey Monkey.

“I can see the headline,” said Mr. Coyne. “‘Commission creates monkey committee.’”

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Under fire by the Dukes County commissioners, Mr. Perry stepped back from a lead role, but will remain on the airport commission.

Beth Toomey will join the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission.

Norman Perry, chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission since April, relinquished the chairman’s post at a meeting of the airport commission Friday morning. Mr. Perry notified his fellow commissioners of his decision to step down from the leadership post but remain on the commission in an email late Thursday night.

“I have assumed his position as chair,” vice chairman Constance Teixeira, said at the beginning of the airport commission’s regular monthly meeting.

Ms. Teixeira set a stern tone. “The meeting today will be governed by Roberts Rules of Order, which gives the chair custody of who is allowed to speak,” Ms. Teixeira said. “Anyone not acknowledged by the chair will not be able to speak at this meeting. There will be some changes in committees. At this time I’m not ready to make those changes.”

Newly appointed airport commissioner Christine Todd, who is also a county commissioner, questioned the process. The airport commission has no bylaws spelling out the process of succession.

“I was under the impression that we would elect a new chair,” Ms. Todd said. “I’m just wondering what the process is.”

“The process is, the vice-chair steps up, and we elect a new vice-chair,” Ms. Teixeira said.

The meeting was tense at times, but less confrontational than meetings held earlier this year, which drew widespread criticism of airport commissioners by members of the county commission.

Members of the county commission have been highly critical of the airport commission for its handling of several public disciplinary hearings involving an airport employee.

At a meeting on June 18, Dukes County Commission chairman Leonard Jason Jr. asked the seven appointed members of the airport commission to resign. The longtime county commissioner modified his call in a letter dated June 19 addressed to the airport commission in which he suggested that commissioners find something else to do. Mr. Jason asked for a response by July 1.

County manager Martina Thornton, county treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders, and Mr. Jason attended the Friday morning meeting.

After attending to routine airport business, commissioners approved a response to Mr. Jason’s June 19 letter in which he asked the  airport commissioners to consider another line of civic duty.  Commissioners did not discuss the text of the letter or read it aloud.

Ms. Teixeira, Mr. Perry, Peter Bettencourt, Denys Wortman, and James Coyne voted in favor of the response. Ms. Todd voted against sending the response, and newly appointed airport commissioner Richard Michelson abstained.

Ms. Todd said she has already sent her response. Mr. Michelson, a former airport employee, said he intended to send his own response.

Following the meeting, assistant airport manager Deborah Potter refused to respond to an oral request for the letter. She asked that all requests for public documents be submitted in writing. She did not responded to a written request from The Times by the end of the day Friday. The Times also requested a copy of the letter from the county manager. That request was also not met by the end of the day Friday.

The airport commission also distributed a draft of an airport employee policies and procedures handbook for discussion. Airport policies and procedures have been a sharp point of contention during recent disciplinary hearings and meetings. Beth Tessmer, a nine-year airport employee who was twice suspended and then fired earlier this year, has contended in a workplace discrimination lawsuit, that the airport commission did not follow disciplinary procedures established for Dukes County employees.

Airport commission attorney Susan Whalen, speaking by conference call, advised commissioners to keep the document confidential, not to distribute it electronically, and not to share copies with outside advisors. Though distributed at a public meeting in open session, she maintained it is not a public record, because it falls under an exception to the Massachusetts Public Records Act concerning formulation of public policy.

“I would recommend that the commissioners keep their copy privileged and confidential,” Ms. Whalen said. “You’re obligated to maintain the confidential record of the public body.”

“I don’t see anything that is so secret, secret, that no one else in the world can look at it,” said Mr. Michelson, who has spoken forcefully in recent meetings about the need for a policies and procedures manual.

The commissioners agreed to review the document, and send comments to Ms. Potter by email.

The meeting was not without its lighter moments.

The commissioners agreed, at the suggestion of Mr. Michelson, to send an electronic survey to all airport stakeholders, including tenants, employees, pilots, and others, to gauge what they think about airport operations. Ms. Potter suggested using the popular Internet based survey software known as Survey Monkey.

“I can see the headline,” said Mr. Coyne. “‘Commission creates monkey committee.’”

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In a letter, the county commission asked its appointees to self-reflect and consider another civic pursuit.

The Dukes County Commission building. — Marthas Vineyard Times File Phot

In a followup to a special meeting of the Dukes County Commission last week, chairman Leonard Jason Jr. has asked the seven appointed members of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission to consider a new line of civic involvement.

At a meeting on June 18, Mr. Jason called for the outright resignation of the seven airport commissioners. The longtime county commissioner modified his call in a letter dated June 19 addressed to the airport commission in which he suggested that commissioners find something else to do. Mr. Jason asked for a response by July 1.

“Our duties as public servants often cause us to wonder why we do the things we do,” wrote Mr. Jason, the building inspector in both Edgartown and Chilmark. “It is an awesome responsibility that requires us to reflect on our attitudes, motives and performance in the discharging of our duties. The county commissioners believe the time has come for the airport commissioners to re-examine their behavior, their actions, and their conduct in their meetings.

“A public body that is in charge of the greatest asset of the county has an obligation to conduct public business publically, politely, and respectfully not only to the public, but also to its members. Perhaps the time has come to channel your energies in pursuit of a different endeavor.”

Members of the county commission have been highly critical of the airport commission for its handling of several public disciplinary hearings involving an airport employee.

At a June 18 special county commission meeting called to discuss the airport commissionMr. Jason called outright for the resignation of the airport commissioners. Though many county commissioners voiced harsh criticism of the airport commissioners’ actions at recent public meetings, most wanted to soften the language in the letter.

The county commissioners acknowledged they have no authority to revoke their appointments, or force resignations.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport commission is responsible by state statute for the care and custody of the county-owned airport. The county commission exercises authority over the airport through its appointing authority.

Response

Airport commission chairman Norman Perry called Mr. Jason’s letter ludicrous.

“Every so often, we get this situation from the county, trying to take over the airport,” Mr. Perry said in a phone interview late Wednesday. “It gets dicey, like this one is.”

Mr. Perry said the airport commission will discuss a response to the call for resignations at its next meeting, scheduled for Friday, June 27.

He said he has no intention of resigning from his post.

“I’ve got too much to do, good stuff to do,” he said.

The only written response the county received as of late Wednesday was from county commissioner and newly appointed airport commissioner Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs.

“I agree with your comments regarding the privilege of serving on a public body and I believe in my very brief tenure, just two months, that I have acted in such a manner,” Ms. Todd wrote in a letter dated June 19, the same day Mr. Jason sent his letter. “I fully intend to continue my pursuit of honesty, integrity, respect and transparency in this governing board of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. I feel my efforts and actions have begun to at least reveal the true character of the Commission as it has existed. The process of improving matters, I believe, begins with identifying and exposing the existing problems. I feel progress is beginning to be made in that department and have hope that it is possible to construct a productive, professional and effective governing Commission.”

There was little response from the other members of the airport commission.

Rich Michelson of Oak Bluffs, a former airport employee who has been highly critical of airport management, was appointed to the airport commission at the same time as Ms. Todd. He refused comment and hung up on a Times reporter.

Airport commissioner Denys Wortman of Tisbury deferred any comment to Mr. Perry. Mr. Wortman, a private pilot and former Tisbury selectman, said he is not planning to resign.

Airport commissioners Constance Teixeira and James Coyne did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Airport commissioner Peter Bettencourt could not be reached.

Airport manager on leave

Mr. Perry told The Times that he granted airport manager Sean Flynn an eight-week leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal law designed to give workers unpaid leave to deal with medical or family matters. Mr. Perry said the airport commission received medical certification that the leave was warranted. He also said the medical leave could be shortened if Mr. Flynn can return to his position as airport manager earlier.

Mr. Perry rejected criticism of his decision, saying under the federal law, he could not refuse the request for medical leave.

Several members of the airport commission were surprised to learn that Mr. Perry granted the medical leave before the June 18 airport commission meeting, which was held in executive session.

“I don’t think the circumstances warranted a unilateral decision like that,” said Ms. Todd in a phone interview Wednesday.

She said that the attorney advising the airport commission cited past practice and an absence of any defined procedure for granting leave in the airport commission’s bylaws as justification for Mr. Perry’s action.

Ms. Todd said she will ask for a review of the bylaws at the June 27 airport commission meeting,.

Legal bills mount

At a joint meeting of the Dukes County Advisory Board and the Dukes County Commission Wednesday, advisory board member Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter of West Tisbury questioned the legal cost of current litigation between the county and the airport.

The airport commission filed a lawsuit against the county earlier this year, in which it asked a judge to clarify county treasurer Noreen Mavro-Flanders responsibility to pay airport invoices, and whether county manager Martina Thornton can sit on the airport commission as an ex-officio member.

Following a sometimes heated discussion about the cost of the litigation, the county commissioners voted, and the advisory board approved, a transfer of an additional $17,000 for expected county legal expenses in May and June of this year. The county originally budgeted $3,000 for legal expenses.

Ms. Mavro-Flanders reacted angrily to Mr. Manter’s criticism of county legal expenses, and she cited a list of invoices distributed to the board documenting the airport commission’s legal expenses.

According to Ms. Mavro-Flanders, the airport commission budgeted $25,000 for legal costs, and has spent $154,425 so far during this year.

The airport commission is also facing a workplace discrimination lawsuit from an employee twice suspended, then fired, earlier this year.

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Three people who once served as airport commissioners offer a perspective on the current turbulence at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

Beth Toomey will join the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission.

Several former members of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport commission, including two chairmen, all veterans of a costly legal battle with the Dukes County Commission over the statutory role of the county appointed airport commission, offered remarkably similar views of the current turbulence that last week led county commission chairman Lenny Jason, Jr. to ask members of the airport body to resign.

“It’s disheartening,” said Marc Villa of Chilmark, a former chairman of the airport commission who was ousted by county commissioners in 2003. “I don’t understand how it degenerates so fast.”

“It’s obviously deja vu all over again, to quote Yogi Berra,” said George Balco of Tisbury, who served briefly as chairman before he was voted out of the lead role. “It’s sad.”

“It looks like a rerun,” said Frank Daly of Tisbury, who served on the airport commission during the same period as Mr. Villa and Mr. Balco. “We’re just going into a repeat of what happened before.”

County commission unhappiness with its appointed airport commission is not new. It is rooted in efforts over the years to exercise control, often through the county manager, of the state’s only county-owned airport. The issue came to a head when state and federal aviation authorities tied millions of dollars in airport grants to assurances that the county would not interfere in airport affairs.

Over the years, the county commissioners have self appointed county commissioners to the airport commission or appointed individuals more in line with the county view. But until last week there was never been a call for a wholesale resignation.

It’s a mess

In 1997, the commissioners appointed Mr. Villa to the airport commission. A successful businessman and pilot, he served six years on the airport commission, three as chairman after wresting control from John Alley of West Tisbury, a longtime county and airport commissioner. During his tenure Mr. Villa engaged in a running battle with the former county manager, Carol Borer, and county commissioners over his insistence that the airport commissioners and not the county commissioners and their county manager had the sole statutory authority to control airport affairs, a position bolstered by state and federal grant guarantees, and later a superior court decision.

Mr. Villa was credited for many of the improvements at the airport, including the construction of a new terminal and more professional accounting procedures. When he failed to win reappointment in 2003 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. In a phone interview with The Times Tuesday, Mr. Villa said the current turbulence is a result of that practice.

More than once, Mr. Villa used the word disheartening to describe the current state of affairs between the county and airport commission.

“We had a coalition of individuals that was able to put the airport back together again,” Mr. Villa said. “We were able to wrestle control of it from the county commission, particularly from John Alley. We were very successful and we left it in good shape.

“They slowly, through attrition and effort, built it back up again with their own people and it’s a mess. There’s no question the county creates an airport commission that is a mirror image of themselves. They have to blame themselves for the mess.”

Mr. Villa is critical of the county commission for its recent appointments, including the appointment of one of their own members, Christine Todd, to the airport commission, and Richard Michelson, a former airport employee and union leader. Mr. Villa believes no one should serve on both boards at the same time.

“I fought that all the time, I didn’t think that was appropriate,” Mr. Villa said. “I fail to understand how you can appoint a fellow who was a union employee on disability as an airport commissioner. The county commissioners, if they really want to do their job, have to go out and solicit individuals to get in there with a particular set of skills, whether it’s an engineer, accounting, aviation. It doesn’t have to be all pilots, that wouldn’t work either.”

Mr. Daly, a civil engineer and businessman, agrees with that view. “The root of the problem is the county commissioners didn’t vet these people,” he said.  “You need business common sense. The airport is a business.”

Two masters

The latest skirmish between the county and airport commission is rooted in the transformation 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 in the 1990s.

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. presided over by Mr. Alley.

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.

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.

During the same round of appointments the county commissioners appointed Mr. 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.

At the time of his appointment to the airport commission, Mr. Balco brought a business background in financial analysis and investments to the board and ten years of experience on Tisbury’s finance and advisory committee.

Mr. Balco said when county commissioners appoint themselves to the airport commission, it creates problems. “How can you see it any way other than a conflict,” Mr. Balco said. “You can’t serve two masters working against each other. It makes it a joke.”

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, both a county and airport commission member at the time — 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.

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 chairman of the airport commission.

Mr. Villa said county commissioners take too provincial a view when they make appointments.

“There’s a tendency to try to keep all of this stuff on-Island, with Island people,” Mr. Villa said. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t qualified Island people, but quite often you have to bring in someone from outside. There’s also some apathy. It’s hard to get people to jump into the fray, partially because they don’t think they can do anything. The same names have been there for years, they don’t think they can deal with them.”