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Dukes County commissioners

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Judge Richard Chin listened to arguments at the hearing on July 27.

Attorneys for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission and the Dukes County Commission presented oral arguments in Dukes County Superior Court Tuesday in connection with the latest lawsuit sparked by a long-running dispute over control of the county-owned Martha’s Vineyard Airport and its operations.

In a 13-page civil complaint filed May 5, airport commission lawyers from the Cambridge law firm of Anderson & Kreiger asked the court to prohibit county officials from seeking to “unlawfully interfere with, and obstruct the functioning,” of the Airport Commission. The seven members of the airport commission are appointed by the elected members of the seven-member county commission.

The complaint is based on two ongoing disputes that are only the latest eruptions in the lengthy history of county efforts to exercise control over the county-owned airport. Over the objections of airport officials, county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders has refused to pay airport invoices approved by the airport commission and she has publicly released invoice details the airport considers confidential. And on April 23, the county commissioners recognized county manager Martina Thornton as an ex-officio member of the Airport Commission.

Airport lawyers asked the judge to issue injunctions to prohibit the county commission from naming the county manager an ex-officio member; prohibit the manager from sitting on the airport commission; prohibit the county treasurer from refusing to pay airport invoices; and prohibit the treasurer from releasing confidential information she had obtained between the airport commission and its attorneys.

Airport commission attorney David Mackey (standing) shares a document with county commission attorney Robert Troy in Dukes County Superior Court.

Airport commission attorney David Mackey (standing) shares a document with county commission attorney Robert Troy in Dukes County Superior Court. — Photo by Steve Myrick

In its answer to the lawsuit, filed May 30, the county commission made a series of counterclaims, including a request for the court to declare that the airport is under the jurisdiction of Dukes County, as a subdivision and department of the county, according to Massachusetts law. The county commission also asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order prohibiting the airport commission from submitting invoices without proper documentation. The county commission asked the court to dismiss the airport commission’s complaint, and award the county commission costs to defend itself, with interest.

In a hearing before Associate Justice Richard Chin in Dukes County Superior Court on July 29, attorney David Mackey of Anderson & Kreiger was first to make his case for the injunctions and declaratory judgement.

“This is much more urgent than it was when we brought this case,” Mr. Mackey told the court. “The county’s position has become more extreme. The county commission is attempting to take control of the airport.”

Mr. Mackey said Chapter 90 of the Massachusetts General Laws give the airport commission sole authority for custody, care, and management of the county-owned airport. He said the grant assurances signed by the county commission and the county manager with each round of state and federal funding make it clear that the county commission is prohibited from depriving or diminishing the powers of the airport commission. He also argued that a 2006 court ruling known as the Weibrecht decision reaffirmed the airport commission’s role as a body independent of county government with sole responsibility for the airport’s financial affairs.

“There is some considerable urgency about clearing up this issue about who is running the show,” Mr. Mackey said. He cited language from the law, the grant assurances, and the Weibrecht decision in support of the airport commission’s claim that each overrules the state law and county charter, when there is a conflict.

Judge Chin questioned the airport commission attorney about his requests for immediate injunctions.

“What is the urgency,” Judge Chin asked. “After reading his (the county commission attorney’s) submissions, are you going to turn the keys of the airport over to him?”

Mr. Mackey also argued that an immediate injunction was necessary to prevent the county treasurer from releasing invoices and other documents which could compromise the airport commission’s right to keep communications with its attorneys confidential.

Judge Chin also questioned whether an injunction was warranted on that issue.

“Part of the problem is the lawyers,” Judge Chin said. “Why are they just handing over privileged communication? The attorneys bear some responsibility. It doesn’t sound like you need a court order to prevent these communications. I don’t want this court used as a tool by which information is kept from people. I’m not going to interject myself in this controversy. that’s not the role of this court.”

Attorney Robert Troy of the Sandwich law firm Troy Wall Associates represented the county commission at the hearing. He characterized the disagreement between the two commissions as a political dispute. He said no injunction is warranted to prevent the county manager from sitting as an ex-officio member of the airport commission, because the provision is included in state law. He said “one person sitting at the table who has no vote, for an airport that is owned by Dukes County,” is not an attempt to diminish the airport commission’s authority.

“The real issues, that are petty issues, are due to improper practices of the airport commission,” Mr. Troy told the court. “This is about a very petty and illegal practice. The airport commission has been approving invoices that have no detail.”

As an example, he offered an invoice from a law firm in Colorado that he said the airport commission had retained.

“It says 3.4 hours at $525 per hour,” he said. “What was the work done? T-R-D, that’s all it says. The airport commission should have been communicating with the treasurer and not coming to court.”

Judge Chin noted that all the invoices were eventually paid.

“It seems to me there is no controversy before me about the bills,” Judge Chin said. “There are procedures in place to pay the bills. It sounds like the matter has been resolved. What would I rule on?”

All the parties in the lawsuit were present in the courtroom Tuesday, listening intently to the hearing. Also present was Tracy Klay, chief counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautical Division. He said the issues in the case are important to state regulators, no matter what the decision.

Judge Chin told the attorneys he will take the matters under advisement and issue a written ruling.

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The Dukes County Commission building.

In a special meeting of the Dukes County Commission on Wednesday, June 18, that followed an earlier meeting of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, county commission chairman Lenny Jason Jr. called on the airport commissioners to resign.

Following further discussion and expressions of dissatisfaction, a majority of  commissioners prevailed on Mr. Jason to modify the outright call for resignation.

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.

Mr. Jason is dissatisfied with the airport commission’s stewardship of the airport. In an unusual noon meeting on Wednesday, the airport commission granted airport manager Sean Flynn a leave of absence to address personal issues. 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.

“It’s sad when you see your appointees not performing as you hoped,” Mr. Jason said. “It seems to be a circus atmosphere. It’s not in the best interest of the people of the county. I think we have no alternative but to ask the airport commission to resign. It’s almost like the inmates are running the asylum. The last meeting was disgraceful. That’s not the kind of meeting Thomas Jefferson envisioned.”

Mr. Jason’s fellow county commissioners also voiced withering criticism of the airport commission. They included Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, who was appointed to also serve on the airport commission earlier this year.

“The experience so far has been frustrating for me,” Ms. Todd said. “It’s been quite difficult to get some basic information, like executive session minutes and procedural questions. I’ve found it to be very frustrating. I’m concerned.”

County commissioner Leon Brathwaite of West Tisbury said he was concerned, after watching MVTV recordings of the airport commission meetings. “I’ve watched the videos,” he said.

“I’m shocked and appalled.”

However, a majority of the commissioners argued to soften Mr. Jason’s outright call for resignation and were leary of using the word “resign.” The county commissioners acknowledged that they have no authority to revoke their appointments, or demand a resignation outright. They will instead send a letter.

While the letter has yet to be drafted, after the meeting Mr. Jason summarized what the full commission agreed the letter should state.

“The letter will ask you to reexamine how you are conducting business, if you feel it’s in the best interest of the people of this county or not,” Mr. Jason said. “If upon reflection you feel you haven’t been doing a good job, perhaps you should consider an alternative.”

Three airport commissioners attended part or all of the county commission meeting. Following the meeting, airport commission chairman Norman Perry said he would not resign. Airport commissioner Constance Teixeira declined any comment.

The discussion of the airport commission was the only item on the agenda for the special meeting.

The decision by the airport commission to grant a leave of absence to airport manager Sean Flynn also came in for criticism at the county commission meeting.

A short statement issued by the Airport Commission made no mention that Mr. Flynn asked for the leave prior to the meeting, and Mr. Perry unilaterally granted the leave, according to Ms. Todd.

Mr. Perry said he had no alternative, under the federal family leave regulations.

“Once a person asks for that, you have to give it to them,” Mr. Perry told county commissioners. “This is something the government says you have to give the person the time.”

Richard Michelson, also appointed to the airport commission by county commissioners earlier this year, was unhappy with the process by which Mr. Flynn was granted leave.

“As an airport commissioner, this and other issues are pretty frustrating,” Mr. Michelson said. “When decisions are made by one person and not the entire commission, members of the commission aren’t included, given any input, communication, or notification.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that county commissioner Leon Brathwait is from Oak Bluffs. He is from West Tisbury.

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For the umpteenth time in recent history, the Dukes County commissioners have demonstrated their latent but persistent determination to get their mitts on county airport management.

The commissioners declined the reappointment of two airport commissioners, using the fireworks over the dismissal of an airport employee as the pretext.

Airport management and its union employees have been feuding, and the airport commissioners and the Dukes County commissioners have a decades-old history of feuding. Here was an imagined opportunity for the county commissioners to enlarge their influence over the airport, which after all is the largest, indeed the only significant county asset.  So, the county commissioners spurned the re-appointment request from two of their former appointments to the airport commission. They did so against a backdrop of repeated chastisements – federal, state, and judicial – over attempts by the county to exercise authority over the airport, apart from the strictly limited authority to appoint airport commission members.

The county commissioners tossed two airport commissioners, one of them a county commissioner himself, and replaced them with a fresh county commissioner, perhaps unacquainted with the knotty history of airport-county relations, and with a former airport employee, a frequent and vocal critic of airport management, now on disability retirement and an organizer of airport employees to form a bargaining unit. He also served as shop steward.

You name the landmark county attributes — the criminal, civil, and probate courts, the registry of deeds, the sheriff’s department, the county-owned beaches, the airport — and none of them falls to the county to manage. Sometimes, toward Dukes County voters, God is good.

The Martha’s Vineyard Airport, which by statute is under the control of the appointed airport commission and its professional airport manager, accounts for more than half of the county budget. The county commissioners slaver over that solid financial enterprise, and they’d like to have a piece of it.

The sheriff’s office is now under state control. The registry of deeds and the office of the county treasurer are county departments headed by elected county officials who do not answer to the county manager. Each has direct control over their employees.

In terms of day-to-day supervision and responsibilities, the county manager oversees a total of just two people in three departments — her office, veterans affairs, and a fragment of  integrated pest management.

Until 1993, three elected, paid county commissioners presided over county government. In 1994, voters created a new form of county government that delegated general legislative powers to a seven-member board of unpaid commissioners and gave a county manager full control over the county administration. This enlargement of county administration anticipated an enlargement of the appetites of the six Island towns for more and better county government.

As it happened, what actually occurred was the amputation of county responsibilities, in part because of the county’s demonstrated inability to get things done rationally — the airport expansion fiasco, for example — and the state’s need to streamline its own budget relationship with county governments that were crumbling across the state — the sheriff’s department, for another. Plus, the towns, in their clear-eyed wisdom, asked for nothing from the county. Indeed, over time the county has shifted more and more of the costs of some of the shards of its legacy responsibilities to the towns.

Here is the latest moment offered to the towns and the voters to take steps to sunset this government charade and not to countenance county’s ham-handed intrusion in the business of the only dependably functioning and financially successful county enterprise.