Martha’s Vineyard Airport commissioners rebuff county call to step down

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 commission met Wednesday in executive session to discuss management issues. — 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.’”