Airport, County battle lands in Superior Court

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

For the second time in 10 years, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission has appealed to a Superior Court judge to prohibit the Dukes County Commission, the county treasurer, and the county manager from interfering with the airport commission’s statutory authority to manage and run the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

The 13-page civil complaint dated May 1 was filed in Dukes County Superior court by lawyers from the Cambridge law firm of Anderson & Kreiger, against the county commission, county manager Martina Thornton and county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders. It asks the court to prohibit the county officials from seeking to “unlawfully interfere with, and obstruct the functioning,” of the Airport 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, Ms. 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 named Ms. Thornton an ex-officio member of the Airport Commission.

The complaint states that the county commission lacks the legal authority to reorganize the airport commission by adding the county manager and that Ms. Mavro Flanders lacks the legal authority to refuse to pay submitted invoices or request and release confidential information.

The Airport Commission has asked the judge for declaratory and injunctive relief.

In a telephone call Wednesday, Norman Perry, chairman of the Airport Commission, said he considers the court action a minor housekeeping issue.

“They are civil complaints,” Mr. Perry said. “They are using Chapter 34A, and as we all know by now, Chapter 90 has superseded that. We are seeking a judge’s clarification for both parties. Whatever it comes out to, we’ll follow.”

Mr. Perry said that in the future, when disputes arise, he hopes to sit down with Ms. Mavro Flanders and mediate the issues.

An attorney, Kevin Batt, who represents the Airport Commission said on Wednesday that the Airport Commission wants some clarity from the court. “It just seems things happen that need to get some judicial intervention to help solve the problems,” he said.

Legal bills, legal questions

Ms. Mavro Flanders, the elected Dukes County treasurer, serves as the accountant for the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. Under an arrangement renewed annually, the airport pays the county for accounting services through the county treasurer department. According to airport manager Sean Flynn, the airport budgeted approximately $103,000 for accounting services this year.

The airport commission reviews and approves bills for goods and services, then forwards the invoices to the county treasurer for payment.

The latest dispute began when Ms. Mavro Flanders refused to pay redacted legal bills that the airport commission submitted from law firms it had retained. The airport commission redacted what it contends are details protected by attorney-client privilege, or health privacy laws.

“The County Treasurer has acknowledged that, in many cases, and apparently without notice to and without the consent of the MVAC (Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission), she has communicated directly with staff at the law offices of the MVAC’s attorneys to obtain unredacted copies of the invoices,” states the complaint. “In sum, the County Treasurer believes that she has the legal authority to refuse to pay invoices which have already been duly approved by the MVAC, to obtain privileged and confidential communications between the MVAC and its attorneys without notice to and without the consent of the MVAC, and to release those privileged and confidential communications to the public at large.”

Chapter and verse

In a brief phone interview with The Times, Ms. Mavro Flanders said she refused to pay the disputed bills because state law requires a certain level of detail on the invoices. “I did not pay a bill without the details, as Chapter 35 requires,” she said. “It was paid as soon as I got the details.”

Ms. Mavro Flanders said she received the details by requesting a copy of the invoice directly from the law firm which did the work, and that she released the unredacted bills to a third party in response to a public records request. She said she has not been served with any notice of legal action against her.

“I’m going to be through answering questions,” Ms. Mavro Flanders told The Times. “I shouldn’t be answering questions without the advice of an attorney.”

The invoices that spurred the dispute are related to the suspension and then firing of an airport employee Beth Tessmer by airport management. The county commission and supporters of the fired employee objected to the actions of the airport commission. In retaliation, the commission exercised its appoint authority last month and refused to reappoint longtime airport commission members John Alley and Benjamin Hall Jr. In their place, the county commission appointed one of its own members, Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs and Rich Michelson, a former airport employee and union official who has been a vocal and frequent critic of airport managers.

Records requests

The complaint states that Ms. Mavro Flanders released privileged and confidential communications between the airport commission and its attorneys to third parties. One of those third parties was Mr. Michelson.

As the often hostile disciplinary action against Ms. Tessmer proceeded, Mr. Michelson filed public records requests with Ms. Mavro Flanders and received copies of the legal invoices that detailed their work for the airport commission in connection with those proceedings to the consternation of airport officials.

In a phone interview with The Times, Mr. Michelson at first flatly denied any knowledge of the invoices, or that he had requested any public records. In a subsequent phone call, he acknowledged his requests.

“Thinking about it, I did ask from the airport for some freedom of information things,” Mr. Michelson said. “That was me trying to educate myself about what was going on.”

Asked if he filed any public records requests for any documents directly with Ms. Mavro Flanders, Mr. Michelson said he got the documents from the airport, then changed his answer. “No, actually I did file those with the county, for the airport records,” he said. Mr. Michelson confirmed that Ms. Mavro Flanders released the records to him.

Hot seat

The complaint asks the court to declare that the county commissioners’ attempt to seat the county manager on the Airport Commission violates the law, and the county’s own agreements outlining responsibility for airport operations.

“By attempting to insert the County Manager as an ex-officio, nonvoting member of the MVAC, the County Commission and the County Manager violated the terms of the Airport Act,” the complaint states, “which provide for the structure of the MVAC and make no provisions for any ex-officio, nonvoting members. Furthermore, the County Commission and the County Manager have directly breached their agreement, expressly described in the Grant Assurances, not to reorganize the MVAC or otherwise interfere with its autonomy or authority.”

Legal structure

In making their case, lawyers for the airport commission reference the airport act that established the airport commission.

“The Airport Act provides the exclusive means of appointment to the MVAC, and makes no provision for any ex-officio, nonvoting members. Nor does the MVAC currently have any ex-officio, nonvoting members,” the attorneys wrote in the complaint.

The complaint also rests on grant assurances agreed to by the Dukes County commissioners as a condition of receiving federal and state grants for airport improvements.

“The grant assurances prohibit the MVAC from permitting ‘any action which would deprive [the MVAC] of, or otherwise diminish, any of the rights, privileges, responsibilities or powers of [the MVAC] as are necessary to exercise the custody, care, and management of the airport.’”

This is not the first test of county authority over airport affairs or the strength of the grant assurances.

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 in favor of the airport commission, 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.”

Over the past decade, legal fees on both sides of the various disputes between the county and airport officials have cost taxpayers more than $500,000.