County commission begins airport commission interviews

The county may well use its appointing authority to clip the airport commission’s wings.

County Clerk Joseph Sollitto, foreground, administered the oath of office to county commissioners: from left, John Alley, Christine Todd, Leon Brathwaite, David Holway, and Gretchen Tucker Underwood on Jan. 14. Commissioners Leonard Jason Jr. and Tristan Israel are hidden from view. — Photo by Steve Myrick

The Dukes County commissioners last week began the formal process of filling three seats on the seven-member airport commission that it has been battling in court for more than one year for control of the county-owned airport. Of the six candidates, two currently sit on the airport commission and are seeking reappointment.

At their Feb. 25 meeting, the county commissioners interviewed James Coyne, who has served two terms on the airport commission and seeks reappointment to a third three-year term. The rigorous questioning directed at Mr. Coyne, a pilot, included references to the lawsuit against the county commission.

By state statute, the airport commission is responsible for the airport. In the past, the county has repeatedly used its appointing authority to rid itself of airport commissioners with whom it disagreed.

The county commission has scheduled interviews with five other candidates, including incumbent commissioner Constance Teixeira. The commission was scheduled to hold its final interviews Wednesday night and vote on appointments but put off any action when three candidates were unable to attend.

The appointment process has raised the possibility of a legal challenge, outlined in a sharply worded letter from the airport commission’s attorney, if the new appointees are unqualified, or have conflicts of interest.

In the current lawsuit, Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin has issued preliminary injunctions in favor of the airport commission on all five points alleging the county commission is unlawfully interfering with the airport commission, writing in his opinion that the county is unlikely to prevail in the legal dispute. The two sides argued their positions at a court hearing Feb. 12. A court decision is now pending on whether to grant a motion for summary judgement requested by the airport commission, declaring its position valid and dismissing the case.

Questioning the questions

The county commissioners spent the first 20 minutes of their Feb. 25 meeting wrangling over the interview procedure. They agreed on a series of six general questions to be asked of all airport commission candidates, beginning with, “Why do you want to be an airport commissioner?” and ending with, “Why should we appoint you to the airport commission?”

County commissioner David Holway, participating by conference call, said he had a set of questions he wanted to ask, revolving around the airport commission’s decisions to sue the county commission.

“I think it’s important to get the mindset of the incumbent commissioners,” Mr. Holway said. “The incumbents have, as far as I’m concerned, created quite a mess at that airport. They’re not holding people accountable for how they’ve spent money. They’ve spent money willy-nilly.”

Mr. Holway later said his questions were designed to inform the public of what he considered decisions contrary to good public policy.

“I actually think the general public has been ill informed as to what has transpired here, and how the decision-making process at the airport has gone on,” Mr. Holway said. “I think we have an opportunity, by asking these types of probing questions, to let the general public know exactly how they’re making these determinations, given the way the airport’s been run.”

Process problems

The question of whether to ask each candidate the same question divided the commissioners.

“You ask everybody the same thing. You’re creating an unfair bias to the two incumbents who are reapplying for their jobs and not the others. You’re setting yourself up for trouble,” John Alley of West Tisbury, ousted last year by his fellow county commissioners from the airport commission, said.

Christine Todd of Oak Bluffs, self-appointed to the airport commission last year when a vacancy appeared, agreed. “I think it’s very important that we present the same questions to everyone,” Ms. Todd said. “Given my position being on the airport commission and the county commission, I feel that my involvement in this process should be at a minimum. I don’t think I want to be posing questions. I think I need to keep a fairly low profile in this process.”

“The questions we were considering asking were very general,” said county commissioner Tristan Israel of Tisbury, who is also a selectman in that town. “Mr. Holway was bringing up very specific issues. There’s a part of me, I guess I’m with him on that. Having said all of that, it’s probably just easier to ask everybody the same simplified questions as we go through this process.”

Gretchen Tucker Underwood asked why the interview process was being changed. “It was my understanding that we would ask one set of questions to all the candidates,” Ms. Tucker Underwood said. “We’re now looking at two-tiered; am I missing something here?”

Leonard Jason Jr. of Chilmark, also participating by conference telephone call, advocated for Mr. Holway’s questions.

“I think it’s important that people understand why we vote the way we do,” Mr. Jason said. “We’ve been chastised to pick the right people. The only way you get the right people is if you ask the right questions. I think Dave had some good questions that the public should hear the answer to.”

Terse interview

Following an extensive discussion, the county commissioners agreed by consensus that all candidates would be asked the same set of six general questions agreed upon earlier, but if individual commissioners wanted to follow up, they could ask any questions they thought appropriate.

Mr. Coyne participated by Skype, a video-teleconferencing service, from his Virginia home. Mr. Coyne outlined his experience as a pilot, and as former president of the National Air Transportation Association, a lobbying organization that represents aviation service businesses. He said he and his family spend more and more time at his seasonal West Tisbury home, purchased eight years ago.

“I’ve probably visited more airports than almost anyone you’ll meet in your life,” Mr. Coyne said. “I think I’ve made a difference. I like to think I bring to the airport commission meetings a business perspective. It has gone through a remarkably unusual year or two, the personal disputes, the travails of the airport manager. I think the most important thing is to get this back on an even keel. It has been a frustrating year.”

Mr. Holway, a seasonal resident of Edgartown, and president of the National Association of Government Employees, a union that represents more than 110,000 workers, and an Obama appointee to the National Council on Federal Labor-Management Relations, bore in with questions about the airport commission’s litigation subcommittee, which makes decisions about legal action independent of the full airport commission.

“Did you vote to file the lawsuit against the county?” he asked Mr. Coyne.

“I think I did, I’m not exactly sure which vote that was,” Mr. Coyne said. “There were many votes involved with the litigation with the county. I don’t know exactly which lawsuit you’re referring to. My guess is whatever one you’re referring to, I probably did vote for it.”

“Do you know how much it has cost the airport to pay for that litigation?”

“I do not know. I haven’t see the bills for that.”

“Do you have any idea how much it has cost the county for that lawsuit?”

“I don’t know that either.”

Other commissioners followed suit. Mr. Israel expressed exasperation with the airport commission’s formation of a litigation subcommittee.

“While the litigation subcommittee met for most of last year, is there a reason [that] for at least six months, the airport commission did not meet?” Mr. Israel asked.

“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Mr. Coyne replied.

“They didn’t meet for five or six months this summer, unless I’m wrong, while the litigation subcommittee, certainly I assume, met, because they filed many suits,” Mr. Israel said.

“I’m not sure that’s true. I remember having airport commission meetings over the last six months,” Mr. Coyne said.

Useful tool

Although the county commissioners have expressed dissatisfaction with the airport commission’s decision to form a litigation subcommittee, airport lawyer David Mackey said it is a useful tool.

“The airport commission was compelled to take this action because one or more airport commissioners with apparent conflicts of interest declined to recuse themselves from the pending lawsuit,” Mr. Mackey said in an email to The Times this week. “The formation of a litigation subcommittee is a tool often used by commissions or boards to ensure that decision-making on pending claims or lawsuits is not infected by divided loyalties.”

Mr. Mackey was referring to Ms. Todd, who sits on both the county commission and the airport commission, which makes her both a defendant and a plaintiff in the same lawsuit.

Since its inception, the airport commission’s litigation subcommittee has met 12 times, including 5 times during a three-month gap when the full commission did not meet due to pending litigation over an effort by the county commission to expand the airport commission from seven to nine members, later rebuffed by Judge Chin.