Airport commission takes formal step to remove airport manager

Airport manager Sean Flynn said the commission action is an outgrowth of his battle with the county and could initiate a costly and damaging lawsuit.

The Airport Master Plan will look at development over the next 20 years. – File photo by Nelson Sigelman

Updated 8 pm, Friday

In a special closed-door meeting held Friday morning, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission (MVAC) voted to place airport manager Sean Flynn on paid administrative leave. The vote followed behind-the-scenes, and ultimately unsuccessful, efforts by airport commission chairman Myron Garfinkle to craft a separation agreement with Mr. Flynn.

Mr. Flynn said efforts to oust him are an outgrowth of the long and debilitating battle between the Dukes County Commission and its appointed airport commission and violate the terms of his contract. He promised a costly legal battle if there is no resolution.

Mr. Garfinkle confirmed the meeting outcome in a phone call Friday. “The MVAC, in a special session, in executive session this morning, has placed Mr. Flynn on administrative leave with pay pending future proceedings in accordance with Mr. Flynn’s contract,” he said, reading from a prepared statement. “Ms. Potter is continuing to be responsible for the day-to-day management of the airport. The MVAC has great confidence in Ms. Potter’s leadership.”

The executive session was called, according to the agenda, to “discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”

The Friday vote formalizes Mr. Flynn’s status, which has been up in the air for the past seven weeks.

Following a commission meeting on August 13, Mr. Garfinkle told The Times that Mr. Flynn, who was not present at the meeting, was on vacation and that Deborah Potter, assistant airport manager, was filling in while Mr. Flynn was on a vacation of undetermined length. At that time, several noncompliance issues noted by the Federal Aviation Administration in an annual inspection in May were unveiled.

One week later, in a telephone conversation, 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.”

Asked Friday how the morning meeting changes Mr. Flynn’s status at the airport, Mr. Garfinkle said that the airport manager was previously on vacation, and is now on paid leave.

“During the time that he was on vacation we tried to come to an amicable settlement, which I have mentioned in prior weeks, and it doesn’t seem to have happened,” he said.

Reminded that Mr. Flynn disputed the notion he was on vacation and said he was asked to take time off, Mr. Garfinkle said voluntary or not, it was irrelevant.

“Really I don’t know how relevant that is because right now he’s on administrative leave,” Mr. Garfinkle said.

Asked what the next step will be for the commission, Mr. Garfinkle said, “It’s clearly outlined in his contract.”

County’s dirty work

That process could prove lengthy and costly.

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 late Friday in response to a request for comment, Mr. Flynn said the newly appointed members of the airport commission are doing the county’s bidding.

“The county’s proxies on the MVAC are continuing to do the county’s dirty work, which has been the predetermined path for my removal as airport manager,” he said. “The facts to support this latest attempt are unclear and have not been presented in any coherent manner. To date I have not been given the opportunity required by my contract to address the allegations of the MVAC or any regulatory agency. Should the county’s efforts, through the MVAC, continue, I am left with no choice but to defend the contract the MVAC signed in February, at which point the county retaliated with new proxy appointments. This situation — initiated by the County and MVAC — will result, once again, in dark times for the airport, county, commissioners, employees and other officials. I will also be compelled to ensure that individuals at the county and on the MVAC are held accountable for their personal misconducts. A small window of opportunity still exists for the MVAC to reach an amicable resolution, and to avoid paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to its team of lawyers, and multiples of that in damages.”

In an earlier email to The Times, attorney Harry 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.”

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.

Following the contract

Mr. Flynn, who enjoyed a comfortable relationship with earlier airport commissions, hit turbulence this spring after the Dukes County Commissioners used their appointing authority to complete a wholesale replacement of the airport commission that had brought suit against the county for interfering in airport affairs, a suit the airport commission won on all counts.

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.

On Friday, Mr. Perry said he was directing all questions to Mr. Garfinkle.

“We talked, and our chairman is going to be the person you can talk to,” he said. “Myron has developed the dialogue so it’s consistent.”

Mr. Garfinkle of West Tisbury, a private pilot and businessman appointed in March, has taken the lead in the negotiations with Mr. Flynn. The Friday vote initiates the contractual process by which the airport commission may dismiss him.