Understanding no

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In an 18-page decision handed down Monday, June 8, Superior Court Justice Cornelius J. Moriarty II made mincemeat out of the Dukes County Commission and its most recent lamebrained and costly efforts to meddle in the affairs of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport.

No, the county manager cannot sit on the airport commission as a nonvoting member — the county’s ham-handed effort to oversee airport commission decision-making.

No, the county commission cannot willy-nilly expand the airport commission from seven to nine members — a bumbling county effort last fall to alter the voting makeup of its appointed airport commission, which included one of their own self-appointed members, because the commissioners were too impatient to wait until the terms of the recalcitrant members of the airport commission expired in January and they could boot them off.

No, the county treasurer cannot refuse to pay invoices approved by the airport commission — as she did time and again to exert county authority that does not exist.

No, the county treasurer cannot ask to see invoices from airport attorneys to determine what legal services were provided and then pass that private information on to third parties — as she passed them on to a former disgruntled airport employee and union representative, since appointed to the airport commission, where he can wage war against airport management from the inside.

It was clear from the first sentence of the decision that Judge Moriarty understood what this battle was all about.

“This case stands as another chapter in the long-running power struggle between the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission and the County Commission for Duke County over the control of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport,” Judge Moriarty said.

The ruling was handed down as a summary judgement, meaning both sides agreed on the facts and left it to the judge to decide based on the law.

For those of you who have long since given up trying to understand this battle, it goes, punctuated by lots of dollar signs, something like this:

By state statute, the airport commission is solely responsible for the county-owned airport.

The county commission is responsible for appointing members of the airport commission.

More than a decade ago, appalled by county meddling in airport affairs, state aviation officials asked the county commissioners to sign grant assurances which provided millions of dollars in state and federal grants to the airport under the condition the county agree not to reorganize the airport commission or “in any way interfere with the autonomy and authority” of the airport commission.

Irrespective, the county commission has consistently argued that the county charter superseded the state statute known as the Airport Act, which vested authority for the airport in the airport commission, and meddled in airport affairs.

Judge Moriarty said on one hand the county claims that the provisions of the county charter trump the Airport Act, yet on the other hand it agrees that the grant assurances are a binding contract.

“It appears that the County seeks to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds,” Judge Moriarty said. “It may not do so. Here the County has forfeited its right to manage the airport through the execution of the grant assurances and the acceptance of state and federal funds.”

For those of you keeping score, the County Commissioners are now 0-2 in Superior Court.

In July 2005, Superior Court Judge Robert Bohn Jr. ruled that the airport commission had the statutory authority to set the salaries of its professional managers, and that the county lacked the legal authority to interfere with the payment of those salaries. The legal issues were the same.

Judge Bohn also slapped the county with a hefty bill. In total — including back wages, triple damages, and legal fees for all involved — the defeat totaled more than $800,000. The award of treble damages was later rescinded on appeal.

That’s two knockouts. There were multiple jabs landed that ought to have told the county how this fight was going to end. Yet it persisted.

Judge Moriarty’s decision is a lively piece of writing, even humorous until one considers the colossal waste of time and resources spent fighting a fight that had its roots in the arrogance and thickheadedness of the county commissioners, whose actions compelled the now-ousted airport commissioners to file the lawsuit decided on Monday.

In March, the county commissioners used their appointing authority to finish the purge of the airport commission that began last year. County Commissioner David Holway’s clumsy questioning of the candidates left little doubt that a willingness to stand behind the airport’s litigation against the county was a litmus test.

The next test will be how the newly appointed members of the airport commission react to this legal victory, and whether they assert the principles of law on which the judge based his decision. They are the beneficiaries of a battle that began years ago, when airport commission chairman Marc Villa of Chilmark, a pilot and businessman, and his fellow commission members opposed county efforts to meddle in airport affairs. Mr. Villa was duly tossed off the airport commission, but not before he had overseen the transformation of the airport from a ramshackle collection of buildings to a new modern facility and the straightening out of airport finances.

Last June, County Commission Chairman Leonard Jason Jr. called for the outright resignation of the seven airport commissioners. The longtime county commissioner later modified his call in a letter addressed to the airport commission, in which he suggested that the commissioners find something else to do.

Perhaps it is time for the seven county commissioners — Leon Brathwaite, John Alley, Tristan Israel, Christine Todd (also an airport commissioner), Leonard Jason Jr., Gretchen Tucker Underwood, and David Holway — to find something else to do.