County, airport clash in court over airport commission expansion

A superior court judge promised a quick ruling on a request to stop the county from adding two new airport commission appointees.

Attorney Robert Troy represented the Dukes County Commission before Judge Richard J. Chin in Dukes County Superior Court Wednesday. Seated is clerk-magistrate Joseph Sollito. — Photo by Steve Myrick

In a courtroom watched closely by members of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission and the Dukes County Commission, on Wednesday Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin heard arguments in two separate but related lawsuits that have kept the two public bodies embroiled in controversy for much of the year.

In the first hearing, airport commission attorney David Mackey, of the Cambridge law firm Anderson and Kreiger, asked Judge Chin to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent the county commission from expanding the size of the airport commission from seven to nine members.

Mr. Mackey repeatedly cited legal documents known as grant assurances, which severely limit the county’s role in airport operations as a condition of receiving millions of dollars in state and federal grants. Characterizing the country’s attitude toward the grant assurances as “highly schizophrenic,” Mr. Mackey argued that the documents specifically prevent the county commission from reorganizing the airport commission.

“The grant assurances say that, because they foresaw this scenario,” Mr. Mackey said, “Confusion in the chain of command at an airport is a dangerous thing. Right now, my client [the airport commission] can’t meet because of uncertainty about who the commissioners are.”

Attorney Robert Troy, of the Bourne firm Troy Wall Associates, represented the county commission. He argued that the airport is a department of Dukes County, and has no standing to sue the county commission, or prevent it from adding two new airport commissioners. He said the only agency with authority to sue the county is the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division.

Last week, in a letter dated Sept. 25, Christopher Willenborg, MassDOT Aeronautics Division administrator, demanded an immediate explanation from the county commission chairman of the rationale behind the vote.

“Let’s see how these two airport commissioners do,” Mr. Troy said. “If there is a problem, the Aeronautics Division will step up to the plate. It doesn’t become a reorganization just because you call it a reorganization.”

Before the attorneys got far into their arguments, Judge Chin aggressively questioned both sides about the legal basis for the county commission’s vote to expand the airport commission.

“I read the statute to say they can establish a commission,” Judge Chin said. “There is no statutory authority to increase or decrease it. There is no authority after that to change it.”

Judge Chin said he understood the urgency of the matter. He took the matter under advisement, and he promised to issue a written ruling as soon as possible.

Also Wednesday, Judge Chin heard arguments in connection with a protracted legal dispute between the airport commission and Beth Tessmer, an employee who was fired and later filed a workplace discrimination lawsuit.

The court has already issued a preliminary injunction against the county commission on all other issues in the original lawsuit. On August 7, Judge Chin ruled for the airport commission on every point in its request for a preliminary injunction against the county commission, county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders, and county manager Martina Thornton, based on his view that the airport commission has shown “a likelihood of success on the merits.” Judge Chin said the county commission is enjoined from appointing the county manager to the airport commission as an ex-officio, nonvoting member; the county manager is enjoined from serving in such a capacity; and the county treasurer is enjoined from refusing to pay invoices duly approved for payment by the airport commission, from obtaining privileged or confidential communications between the airport commission and its attorneys without notice to, or the consent of, the airport commission, and from releasing those communications between the airport commission and its attorneys to the public.