County postpones signing airport grant assurances pending legal review

The next 20 years are mapped out for the Martha's Vineyard Airport. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

At a meeting on March 2, Dukes County commissioners agreed to seek legal advice before they signed a grant assurance under which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would provide $600,000 to the Martha’s Vineyard Airport to purchase and maintain snow-removal equipment. Three county commissioners and county manager Martina Thornton provided separate justifications for the delay.

Commissioner David Holway said that the contract required additional review to make sure that the commissioners are even authorized to sign off on grant assurances after a Superior Court judge ruled in a June 8, 2015 decision that the county is not permitted to interfere in airport affairs. Mr. Holway reminded commissioners that he did not vote on the budget for fiscal year (FY16) last June because he understood the ruling to mean just that.

Commissioner Leon Brathwaite argued for additional legal review because the contract’s civil rights clause needs to be updated to include provisions for sexual preference and gender identity. Overall, however, he said that the contract was virtually identical to a contract that the Nantucket Memorial Airport is bound to. “I see nothing wrong with it,” Mr. Brathwaite said.

Commissioner Lenny Jason questioned why the contract had a 20-year lifespan, when snow-removal equipment may not last that long. Mr. Jason further argued that the county charter authorizes the county manager to sign such contracts, and that it is not up to the county commissioners to grant her that authority.

Dukes County manager Martina Thornton said that there was a typo in the contract which improperly identified the County of Dukes County as the “County of Martha’s Vineyard,” which does not exist.

Discussion was tabled and the contract was returned to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation for any corrections. The county commissioners will once again review the contract when it is updated and has been reviewed by a lawyer.

The grant assurances, or contract agreements, that state aviation officials obliged the county commissioners to sign in an earlier legal battle have figured large in the long-running feud between the county commissioners and their appointed airport commission over control of the airport, and in legal decisions.

The assurances defined the conditions for the airport and business park to receive millions of dollars in state and federal funds, and it wrung an agreement from the county commissioners “not to take any action to reorganize the airport commission, or in any way to interfere with the autonomy and authority of the airport commission.”

In an earlier decision, Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin cited the grant assurances in underpinning his decision to grant a preliminary injunction in the public interest. “The county’s alleged violation of the grant assurances may also cause the MVAC to violate the grant assurances, putting its funding at risk and interfering with its ability to operate the airport safely and efficiently to the detriment of the public,” he wrote.