State aviation official scalds Dukes County commissioners

Aeronautics Division head demands an immediate explanation of recent airport commission appointments that appear to violate grant assurances.

In this file photo. county commissioners Lenny Jason and John Alley chat prior to airport commission interviews.

In a sharply worded letter, the head of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division demanded an immediate explanation from the Dukes County Commission for the reorganization of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, which included the failure to reappoint two airport commissioners with aviation backgrounds.

In the letter dated Wednesday, March 25, addressed to Dukes County Commission chairman Leon Brathwaite, Aeronautics Division Administrator Christopher Willenborg said, “Once again, it has come to my attention that the Dukes County Commission has taken action to reorganize the membership of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission (MVAC) without the written approval of the Aeronautics Division. And it is disconcerting that I have to learn of this situation from a source other than you.”

In the latest round in their long-running battle, on March 11, the Dukes County commissioners ousted two incumbent commissioners, in favor of three new appointees, as part of a continuing purge of the airport commission. The county commissioners appointed Bob Rosenbaum, Myron Garfinkle, and Trip Barnes to three-year terms on the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission. They bypassed incumbents James Coyne and Constance Teixeira, who had sought reappointment.

Mr. Willenborg said any attempt to reorganize the airport commission without the approval of the Aeronautics Division would be a violation of state law. He added that in his opinion, any vote taken by the reorganized airport commission without the approval of the Aeronautics Division “would be invalid.”

In response to the Aeronautics Division letter, airport manager Sean Flynn canceled the first meeting of the newly reconstituted airport commission, scheduled for this Friday, March 27.

“I want to insure that all actions taken by the airport commission are valid, and cannot be questioned at a later time,” Mr. Flynn told The Times Wednesday afternoon.

Grounded again

The county commission and the airport commission are locked in a protracted and costly lawsuit over control of the county-owned airport. Over the past year, through the expiration of terms and vacancies, the county commissioners have appointed six new airport commissioners.

Under state law, the county commissioners can appoint airport commissioners, but have no authority over airport operations. Several court decisions have affirmed that the county commissioners are prohibited from interfering with the independence and authority of the airport commission.

In documents known as “grant assurances,” signed by the county commissioners as a condition for receiving millions in state and federal grants, the county agreed not to take any action to reorganize the airport commission without permission of the Aeronautics Division.

Throughout the county interview process, county commissioner David Holway, a seasonal Edgartown resident and president of the National Association of Government Employees union, bore in on the airport litigation, despite the objections of county commissioner and former longtime airport commissioner John Alley. That questioning did not escape the notice of Mr. Willenborg.

“More specifically,” Mr. Willenborg said, “it appears that incumbents were replaced and candidates extensively questioned about their position or view regarding the pending lawsuit between the MVAC and the county, which has yet to conclude. Given the litigious history between the county and the airport commission, it is incumbent upon the Aeronautics Division to ensure that this activity is not a reorganization of the airport commission, nor is it an attempt to interfere with the Martha’s Vineyard Airport grant assurances. Any such reorganization or interference would require the ‘express written approval of the Aeronautics Division.’”

Mr. Willenborg also dashed any hope the county commissioners might have harbored that a newly reconstituted airport commission might end its lawsuit.

“Pursuant to Chapter 90 and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport grant assurances, the MVAC is obligated to pursue the lawsuit with the county,” he said.

Mr. Willenborg questioned whether the airport commission, with the three new appointees, has the authority to meet and make decisions.


Mr. Willenborg demanded an immediate explanation of the county commission’s vote to appoint the three new commissioners.

“Please immediately provide me, in writing, with your rationale for appointing Myron Garfinkle, Robert Rosenbaum, and Clarence Barnes, and replacing Connie Teixeira (the former chair with substantial aviation background) and Jim Coyne (who is an exceptionally well-qualified aviation professional) to the board,” Mr. Willenborg said.

Mr. Brathwaite could not immediately be reached for comment.

In the letter, Mr. Willenborg also took issue with the county commission’s attempt to expand the airport commission from seven to nine members, and appoint two new members, at its Sept. 24, 2014, meeting. The Dukes County Superior Court later issued a preliminary injunction preventing the county from expanding the airport commission.

Prior to the vote, county manager Martina Thornton told the commissioners she had checked with the Aeronautics Division and received its go-ahead.

“Please also allow me to clear up what appears to be a self-perpetuating misunderstanding, which is that the Aeronautics Division approved the action of the commission regarding an increase in membership — it did not,” Mr. Willenborg said.

Mr. Willenborg said that his response to an email received from Ms. Thornton dated August 27 was, “The statute and grant assurances speak for themselves and should be adhered to as you would any statutory directive or contract obligation.”

“This is obviously not an approval, nor should it be construed as such,” he said.

Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin has issued preliminary injunctions on five issues raised in the airport commission’s lawsuit, writing in his opinions that the county is unlikely to prevail in the legal dispute.

The two sides are awaiting a court decision on the airport commission’s motion for summary judgement, which would essentially declare the airport commission’s legal positions valid, and dismiss the case.