Amid a backdrop of personal rancor and litigation, the Dukes County commissioners Wednesday voted to appoint Bob Rosenbaum, Myron Garfinkle, and Trip Barnes to three-year terms on the Martha’s Vineyard Airport commission. The county commissioners bypassed incumbents James Coyne and Constance Teixeira, who had sought reappointment.
The county vote continues a purge of the airport commission that began with the ouster last April of Ben Hall Jr. of Edgartown and John Alley of West Tisbury. Mr. Hall had completed his first term, and sought reappointment to the seven-member board and Mr. Alley, who is also a county commissioner, had served on the airport board for more than three decades.
In their stead the county appointed Christine Todd, who also sits on the county commission, and Rich Mickelson, a former airport employee and sharp critic of airport management. The county later appointed Beth Toomey, a former interim county county commissioner, to a vacated seat.
County commissioner David Holway, who participated by phone, saw the vote as an opportunity. “I think we have a unique opportunity to have a new beginning and to have a new relationship with a new majority, a majority that is going to be transparent,” Mr. Holway said prior to the vote. “I think all four nonincumbents are very well qualified to sit on that board.”
Mr. Alley, who had expressed unhappiness with Mr. Holway’s focus on where each candidate stood on current airport litigation in his questioning throughout the appointment process, disagreed.
“Only two candidates expressed hands-on experience at the airport,” Mr. Alley, referring to Mr. Coyne, a private pilot, and Ms. Teixiera. “I would certainly think those people are well qualified to serve on the airport commission.”
County commission unhappiness with its appointed airport commission is not new. It is rooted in efforts over the years to exercise control, often through the county manager, of the state’s only county-owned airport. The issue came to a head when state and federal aviation authorities tied millions of dollars in airport grants to assurances that the county would not interfere in airport affairs.
Over the years, the county commissioners have self-appointed county commissioners to the airport commission or appointed county employees and individuals more in line with the county view. Exactly what the appointments will mean to ongoing litigation is not clear.
Successive rounds of airport commissioners have rebuffed efforts by the county commissioners to interfere in airport affairs. Several court decisions have affirmed the county commission has authority to appoint airport commissioners, but is prohibited from interfering with the autonomy or independence of the airport commission.
The county treasurer’s handling of sensitive airport documents, and a move to place the county manager as a nonvoting member of the airport commission, led to the latest round of litigation in the decades-long and costly legal battle over control of the county-owned airport.
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 decision is now pending on whether to grant a summary judgement requested by the airport commission, declaring its position valid and dismissing the case.
The Wednesday vote leaves Norman Perry of West Tisbury as the only remaining member of the airport commission that initiated the latest lawsuit.
At their Feb. 25 meeting, the county commissioners interviewed incumbent airport commissioner James Coyne, a private pilot and former president of the National Air Transportation Association, who was seeking a third three-year term. Last Wednesday, the commissioners interviewed John Cahill, an agent at the airport’s Hertz rental-car franchise who lives in Oak Bluffs, and Bob Rosenbaum, a retired technology executive and pilot who is a seasonal resident of Chilmark.
Three other candidates — incumbent airport commissioner Constance Teixeira, a former airport and airline executive; Myron Garfinkle, a retired businessman and pilot; and Clarence “Trip” Barnes, owner of a trucking business who also serves on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission — were scheduled to be interviewed. All three candidates could not participate because of health issues, and appeared Wednesday night.
For Mr. Garfinkle and Mr. Rosenbaum, the appointment was a case of déjà vu. Last September, in an effort to wrest control, the county voted to expand the airport from seven to nine members, and appointed both men to the airport commission. The Superior Court issued a preliminary injunction preventing them from taking their seats on the commission.
County commissioners agreed at the beginning of last week’s interview process to ask the same series of six general questions to all candidates, but commissioners were free to ask any follow-up questions.
As he did in the first interview session on Feb. 25, commissioner David Holway, a seasonal Edgartown resident and president of the National Association of Government Employees union, bore in on the airport litigation subcommittee. That subcommittee was appointed by majority vote of the full committee, to avoid legal conflicts with county commissioner Christine Todd, who sits on both commissions, and is both a defendant and a plaintiff in the lawsuit at the same time, according to the airport commission attorney.
Commissioner Holway asked Mr. Cahill whether it makes sense to have a litigation subcommittee. “Probably not,” Mr. Cahill said. “There might be certain issues that are much bigger than this one, where it would make sense.”
Mr. Rosenbaum agreed. “Having a subcommittee with absolute authority, I would have a great deal of difficulty going along with that,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.
Commissioner John Alley objected to the line of questioning.
“Mr. Chairman, this is really not part of an interview,” Mr. Alley said.
“It’s a follow-up question that he’s asking, and I think it’s been asked before,” county commission Chairman Leon Brathwaite said.
“It hasn’t been asked of the other candidates,” Mr. Alley said.
“It’s been asked of several other candidates, John,” Commissioner Tristan Israel interjected. “The questions you asked were not asked of all the candidates either.”
At the conclusion of the two interviews, Mr. Holway argued forcefully for a vote, irrespective of the fact that three of the six candidates had yet to be interviewed.
“I think we’ve given all the candidates ample opportunity to come and make their case,” Mr. Holway said. “I know enough about the majority of candidates to go forward. I’ve been on this commission a very short period of time. The biggest headache is our interaction with the airport. If we wait one more day to straighten out the airport commission, it’s everything I’m against. I’m ready to vote.”
There was little support among the other commissioners for an immediate vote on the appointments.
“I respectfully disagree,” Commissioner Tucker Underwood said. “I don’t have enough information for us to do this right, and I think it’s very, very important for us to do this right, that we have a fair process and a transparent process.”
The debate over an immediate vote brought another clash between Mr. Alley and Mr. Holway.
“You’re relatively insensitive, you know,” Mr. Alley said speaking directly to Mr. Holway. “You have asked people to come here for interviews.”
“I’m relatively insensitive?” Mr. Holway asked.
“I have some relatives that are insensitive, but I don’t believe I am,” Mr. Holway said.
“Let’s not get crazy about this, the world’s not going to come to an end,” Mr. Alley said.