County Commissioners want county manager on airport commission

The county commissioners cited a provision in the county charter that is at odds with grant assurances state officials put in place to keep the county manager at arm’s length in airport affairs.

The Martha's Vineyard Airport is experiencing some turbulence in its relationship with the county commission. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Provisions in the Dukes County charter and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport grant assurances once again appear to be on a collision course. Dukes County Commissioners, pointing to provisions in the state law that govern the current form of county government, want their paid county manager, Martina Thornton, to participate in Airport Commission meetings as a non-voting ex-officio member.

At their regular meeting on April 23, county commissioners crafted a motion, first incorporating the word “add” and then the word “recognize,” that they approved by a vote of 6-0, to “recognize that Martina is an ex-officio member to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission under the terms of the charter and the administrative code.”

The vote followed a debate that highlighted the continuing dispute over the lines of authority in the management and operation of the only county-owned airport in Massachusetts. Ms. Thornton often attends airport commission meetings.

The county charter specifically provides a non-voting role for the county manager on all boards and committees that are appointed by the county. The county appoints the airport commission.

However, grant assurances signed by the airport and county commission at the insistence of the Mass Aeronautics Commission, which provided funding for the construction of a new airport, specifically barred the county commissioners from interfering in airport affairs.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, county commission chairman Lenny Jason of Chilmark said the airport commission recently refused to admit Ms. Thornton to a closed-door executive session of the Airport Commission. He said that recognizing that Ms. Thornton as an ex-officio member according to state law is not an attempt to interfere with airport operations.

“The charter requires it,” Mr. Jason said. “She shouldn’t be banned from attending a meeting. She should be sitting at the table like it always was.”

Commissioner Tristan Israel of Vineyard Haven called the timing of the county commission vote curious. “Obviously we’ve had some issues in the past couple of weeks,” Mr. Israel said. “I have no interest in us becoming involved in how that commission conducts airport business. Martina goes to many of their meetings already. I think that stirs up things that are not necessary at this point.”

Mr. Israel, who is also a Tisbury selectman, was referring to the county commission’s rejection at their April 9 meeting of two incumbent airport commissioners and their appointment of two new members to the airport commission. The county commission, in a split vote and a disputed procedure, declined to reappoint county commissioner John Alley to the airport commission. He has held seats on both commissions for more than three decades.

Some county commissioners were unhappy with Mr. Alley, who, as chairman of the airport commission, presided over disciplinary hearings for an airport employee who was twice suspended, then fired, by airport management. The county commission also declined to reappoint Benjamin Hall Jr. to the airport commission.

Instead, the county commissioners appointed one of their own commission members, Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, and Richard Michelson, a former airport employee and frequent and vocal critic of airport management.

Conflicting cases

Norman Perry, the new chairman of the Airport Commission, challenges the idea of the county manager as an ex officio member. He said it is not appropriate for the county manager to sit in executive session.

“If you’re discussing issues which would pertain to what she does in the county, then she couldn’t be in it,” Mr. Perry said in a phone interview Wednesday. “There is a process that is going to straighten that out, hopefully not court action, but attorney to attorney.”

According to Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 34A, among the duties of the county manager is to, “Serve, as ex-officio, non-voting member of all appointive bodies in county government.”

Recent court rulings and legal opinions restrict the ability of the Dukes County Commission to interfere with airport operations.

In 1997, involvement by the county manager and county commissioners in airport affairs led state and federal aviation officials to present the county commission with a set of grant assurances they signed in order to secure funds used to rebuild and expand Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Those assurances state that, “Notwithstanding any powers, authority or responsibility that may be granted to the County Commissioners by Chapter 34A of the General laws (the ‘charter’), the county commissioners agree not to interfere in any way with the powers, authority and responsibilities granted to the Airport Commission by Chapter 90, Section 51E of the general laws.”

A 2005 court ruling, known as the Weibrecht decision, further clarified the separation of authority between the county and the airport.

“It came to the attention of the airport commission,” Kevin Batt, of the Cambridge law firm of Anderson & Kreiger who represents the Airport Commission, told The Times. “They’re taking a closer look, and they will have a response. The grant assurances and the Weibrecht decision are very relevant.”

Mr. Batt was among those invited to an executive session at the Airport Commission last Friday that only airport officials were invited to attend. Mr. Perry cited an exception to the open meeting law for going into secret session. “I declare this executive session is necessary to protect the litigation position of the airport commission,” Mr. Perry said.

The decision

In a decision entered on July 18, 2005, Judge Robert H. Bohn ruled that the airport commission had the authority to set the salaries of their professional airport manager at the time, Bill Weibrecht, and assistant manager Sean Flynn, who is now manager.

In his 30-page ruling, Judge Bohn reviewed the history and law surrounding the issue, including the creation of the airport, the enactment of a state statute in 1946, vesting the “custody, control and management” of local airports in an airport commission and the adoption of a county charter by county voters in 1992.

The judge also reviewed the county’s poor and uneven stewardship of its chief asset. The airport and county commissioners signed the required assurances, in which they agreed not to interfere with the “powers, authority and responsibilities” of the airport commission, as provided for by state law.

Judge Bohn wrote, “The county officials entered into these assurances with free knowledge of what they were forfeiting with respect to management of airport activities.”