Airport commission chairman pushes, manager stays put

The lawyer for embattled airport manager Sean Flynn said Dukes County commissioners are behind the removal effort, which could prove costly.

Members of the Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission met last Thursday without their airport manager present. — Photo by Catey McCann

Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission chairman Myron Garfinkle of West Tisbury appeared to have spoken too soon when he announced last week that airport manager Sean Flynn would step down as part of an amicable separation agreement.

Lawyer Harry Beach of Norwood, who represents Mr. Flynn, said his client plans to remain, and any effort to end his contract prematurely would only lead to costly litigation.

Mr. Beach also accused the Dukes County Commissioners, the appointing authority for the airport commission, of being behind the effort to oust Mr. Flynn as part of a long-running battle to bring the airport to heel.

In a telephone conversation Friday, Mr. Garfinkle invoked the careful guidance he said he had received from lawyers, and said, “We are in the process of negotiating an amicable separation.”

Mr. Garfinkle said assistant airport manager Deborah Potter is now managing the airport. He said the best professional search firm would be hired to guide the airport commission in its search for a new airport manager.

In an email to The Times Tuesday, Mr. Beach provided a different version of Mr. Flynn’s status.

“The Airport Commission re-appointed Mr. Flynn as airport manager for a three-year term that began July 1, 2015,” Mr. Beach said. “Just as he has successfully done since 2005, Mr. Flynn intends to serve as airport manager through the current contracted period, ending June 30, 2018.”

In his email, Mr. Beach also referenced the most recent decision in connection with the county’s continuing effort to exercise control over its appointed airport commission. In a decision handed down on June 8 in Dukes County Superior Court, Justice Cornelius J. Moriarty II found for the airport commission on all points.

The ruling was unequivocal. The county commissioners, County Manager Martina Thornton, and County Treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders may not interfere in airport affairs.

All of the members of the airport commission that originally brought that suit, with the exception of Norman Perry of West Tisbury, have been replaced on the airport commission, either because they stepped down or because the county refused to reappoint them.

Mr. Beach said, “Any effort by the county, acting through its proxy agents on the airport commission, to conclude Mr. Flynn’s employment prematurely will only lead to more litigation against the County and the airport commission. As Island taxpayers well know, the County consistently loses when it interferes with the management of the airport. In addition, with the court’s June 2015 permanent injunction, the County’s interference subjects the County and its agents to contempt citations and fines.”

In a telephone call Wednesday, Mr. Beach refused to elaborate on his reasons for accusing the county of calling the shots, or to provide any evidence that supports his claim. Mr. Beach said his statement speaks for itself.

“I have no idea where such allegations come from,” Dukes County Commission chairman Leon Brathwaite told The Times in a telephone call Wednesday.

Mr. Garfinkle could not be reached for comment on the allegations by Mr. Beach.

Mr. Beach previously represented Mr. Flynn in 2002 when the Dukes County commissioners and the county manager, Carol Borer, in a battle with the airport commission over salary-setting authority, refused to authorize the county treasurer to pay then airport manager Bill Weibrecht and assistant airport manager Mr. Flynn the full salaries agreed to by the airport commission. That lawsuit ultimately proved costly for county taxpayers when the judge found in favor of Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn and awarded damages.

FAA precipitated action

Mr. Garfinkle, a pilot and businessman appointed in March, makes no secret of his unhappiness with Mr. Flynn’s stewardship of the airport as it relates to a recent report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which highlighted four areas of concern that included two points of noncompliance.

Asked why he had decided it was in the best interests of the airport to separate from Mr. Flynn, Mr. Garfinkle said Friday he was not allowed to discuss personnel issues.

Asked when the discussion of a separation began, Mr. Garfinkle cited an annual FAA inspection in May that highlighted a long-overdue aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) building construction project, the lack of a wildlife management plan, poor employee performance, and inadequate runway markings that prompted what he said was a FAA letter of investigation.

“The main thread that began to unravel revolved around the FAA’s letter of investigation,” he said.

Mr. Garfinkle said the airport commission determined that the airport was not going in the right direction.

Mr. Garfinkle and vice chairman Robert Rosenbaum described the outstanding issues at an MVAC meeting on Thursday, August 13, after meeting a Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) representative at the airport on August 11.

“The FAA made it clear that we have not made an effort to correct these noncompliance issues over a significant period of time, and in some cases in well over a year,” Mr. Garfinkle said, reading from a prepared statement. The airport is under an Oct. 15 deadline to address markings on the runway and create an adequate wildlife management program.

Conditions to meet

Airport manager Sean Flynn was not present at the meeting on August 13. On Friday, Mr. Flynn said he remains available to Ms. Potter “and the airport 24/7, as I always have been.”

Mr. Flynn is in the second month of a new three-year contract that took effect July 1, worth $138,882 annually. Under the terms of the contract, if the airport commission dismisses Mr. Flynn, the commission must pay him through the end of the three-year contract.

The commission, by majority vote, could terminate the contract for cause by meeting a number of conditions. The commission must give the airport manager 30 days notice of the vote, as well as time to correct any deficiencies identified. The commission must also conduct an impartial hearing at least 10 days before the scheduled vote.

In an email to The Times Friday, Mr. Flynn said it would be inaccurate to say he has decided “to step down.” Mr. Flynn said he remains committed to fulfilling the terms of his current three-year contract. “I will consider all my options as they present themselves, but at this time nothing has been presented,” he said.

New faces

The airport commission that voted to approve Mr. Flynn’s contract is not the airport commission that will preside over his departure.

Airport commission chairman Constance Teixeira and commissioners James Coyne, Denys Wortman, Norm Perry, and Beth Toomey approved the contract. Commissioner Christine Todd, who is also a county commissioner, and Rich Michelson, a former airport employee, voted against the contract.

Ms. Teixeira, Mr. Coyne, and Mr. Wortman are gone. Ms. Teixeira and Mr. Coyne unsuccessfully sought reappointment to the airport commission by the Dukes County Commission amid a long-running battle between the county commission and the airport commission for control of the county-owned airport.

In March, the county commissioners voted to appoint Mr. Garfinkle, Mr. Rosenbaum, and Trip Barnes to three-year terms on the airport commission, bypassing the two incumbents.

The county vote continued a purge of the airport commission that began with the ouster in April 2014 of Ben Hall Jr. of Edgartown and John Alley of West Tisbury.

In their stead, the county appointed Ms. Tod, and Mr. Mickelson, a sharp critic of Mr. Flynn. The county later appointed Beth Toomey, a former interim county commissioner, to a vacated seat.

Norman Perry of West Tisbury is the only remaining member of the airport commission that initiated the lawsuit that was ultimately decided in favor of the airport commission.

In a telephone conversation Wednesday, airport commissioner Norman Perry said he did not know the status of Mr. Flynn. Told that Mr. Beach had accused the county of being behind the push out the door, and asked if he agreed with that assessment, Mr. Perry said, “Yes.”

Mr. Perry said Mr. Flynn was a good manager, and had always been on top of airport issues. He said any deficiencies cited in a recent FAA report were not cause to terminate his contract.

Mr. Perry said that over the course of his tenure on the airport commission, and during its battles with the county, he had witnessed a degree of personal animosity unlike anything he had ever witnessed while serving as police commissioner for 12 years in Connecticut. “I’ve never seen politics like this,” he said. “It’s just been ongoing, and it’s unhealthy, and I’m shocked.”

Local preference

Mr. Flynn began working at the Martha’s Vineyard airport in 1993 as the security coordinator. In 2000 he was hired as the assistant airport manager, and in May of that year he was appointed the acting airport manager, after former manager Bill Weibrecht quit, following a long dispute with Dukes County officials who refused to pay him the full amount stipulated in his employment contract.

The airport commission voted in December 2005 to name Mr. Flynn manager. In selecting Mr. Flynn for the job, the airport commissioners spurned the four candidates selected by a professional consulting firm.

Mr. Flynn, who by many accounts has done a good job as the acting airport manager, was the least experienced out of the five candidates vying for the airport manager job. However, what one airport commissioner called “the Island factor” gave Mr. Flynn a key advantage.

Not everyone agreed on the importance of the Island factor.

Norman Perry, then an airport commissioner, voted in favor of the other finalist.