A proposal to give the county more spending authority without seeking state approval may have inadvertently opened old wounds between the Dukes County Commission, the County Advisory Board, and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission.
At a meeting Wednesday, the commissioners approved special legislation that would give the county the ability to borrow as much as $35 million collectively, but a provision in that legislation that would give the county final say over airport spending caused the county commission to revisit its vote, and airport officials to criticize the move both at Wednesday’s meeting and at the airport commission’s meeting on Thursday, as a violation of a 2015 court order that sought to give airport commissioners more autonomy.
It was airport commissioner Richard Knabel who noticed the provision after the vote was taken. Airport officials had not been provided with copies of the legislation prior to the vote.
Knabel had requested the airport and interested parties be allowed to review the draft legislation before a final vote was taken. “We have not seen it yet, we would like the opportunity to review it and make appropriate comments,” Knabel said.
Commissioner Christine Todd then made an amendment to approve the special legislation, pending review by the airport commission.
But commissioner Tristan Israel objected, saying the county commission doesn’t interfere with airport business, and that “this would be saying we can’t do this without airport approval.”
“I said review, not approval,” Todd responded. “They should have the right to comment on it, but we will still have the final say.”
Israel said he would be more comfortable with postponing the decision until the county commission’s next meeting on Sept. 4. “That would give everyone, including the airport, the proper time to review and make suggestions,” Israel said.
But commissioner Keith Chatinover expressed concern with delaying the decision. “If we push this to the 4th, it is possible we could just talk in circles for 45 minutes again,” Chatinover said.
“That’s government,” Israel said.
“Well, it’s not good government,” Chatinover responded.
After some tense dialogue, the draft legislation was approved by the commissioners as presented, and a copy of the draft was given to Knabel.
That’s when the fireworks began.
“This should not be the precedent going forward,” Chatinover said.
Just minutes after the document was given to Knabel, he raised his hand and read aloud section three of the draft.
“‘The county advisory board of the county of Dukes County, acting on the recommendations of the county commissioners of the county of Dukes County, shall be the final approving authority for all expenditures of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport,’” Knabel read.
“That I’m afraid, is a problem. That is in violation of a court order.”
Knabel asked that if the county has control over “every penny” the airport spends, “what is the point of an airport commission?”
Chatinover said he was so focused on the $35 million figure, he did not notice section 3, which he said should have been “center stage” in the conversation.
But county manager Martina Thornton said that, if the county is going to maintain authority for local bonding, they should have oversight — something she said was lost because of a court ruling.
Thornton suggested recalling the motion to approve the legislation.
“In the spirit of ongoing collaboration and a positive relationship with the airport, I would like to see chair of the airport commission and the county manager sit down with county counsel to figure out a way we can all feel comfortable with this arrangement,” Todd said.
The vote was then rescinded, and the decision was postponed until Sept. 4.
Still stinging from Wednesday’s vote, airport commissioners said at their meeting on Thursday they were “appalled” at the legislation. Airport commission chair Bob Rosenbaum said it was another attempt by the county to interfere in airport business.
“It was unbelievable, appalling,” Rosenbaum said. “The behavior of certain members of the commission and the staff was beyond belief.”
In 2015, a superior court judge ruled in a summary judgement that the county is not allowed to meddle in airport affairs. Rosenbaum read parts of the decision at Thursday’s meeting.
“‘The county is enjoined from in any way interfering with the autonomy or authority with the [Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission] without the expressed written approval of the aeronautics division,’” Rosenbaum said. “It seems incredibly clear to me.”
He went on to say section three was the most “outrageous, egregious attempt at violating this particular court order,” and said if counsel wrote section 3, they should be disbarred, if staff wrote it they should be fired.
Claims that airport borrowing is out of control are not true, according to Rosenbaum.
Knabel agreed, saying it was shocking that county commissioners had not read the legislation draft before Wednesday’s meeting: “That’s outrageous, absolutely outrageous.”
At the county commission meeting, Israel expressed concern about the high ceiling of $35 million under consideration, despite Thornton’s assurances that all borrowing would still come before the county.
“I don’t remember us borrowing anywhere near that amount. I feel that is a very high ceiling,” Israel said.
Over time, Thornton said the airport might need bonding for various projects, but those total costs might never approach the aggregate limit.
“Maybe we will never need the $35 million; that is just the maximum for projects,” Thornton said.
She also reminded the commission that if this legislation is approved, every bond request must still go before county commissioners and advisory board for approval. “That has not been the case in the past,” Thornton said.
But Israel said he is concerned that setting such a high ceiling could “come back to bite us.”
“What will happen is, say there is a project that may be controversial that comes before us. That money is there, so the argument will be, ‘Well, you guys authorized us up to $30 million.’ Why do we need to have a number at all?” Israel asked.
Knabel explained that if the county does not specify a number, the state will set one itself.
“The legislature requires that there be a number. They want a worst-case scenario for borrowing for the county in general,” Knabel said. “What would that be if we had a major hurricane and the terminal blew away?” Knabel asked.
Chatinover reiterated Thornton’s point that the legislation is “not a blank check.”
“In the event of a catastrophe, this is saying we don’t want any more red tape up in Boston,” Chatinover said. “This isn’t even about the $35 million — it’s really about making it easier to avoid a long, drawn-out borrowing process in Boston.”
County commissioner Leon Brathwaite suggested setting a lower limit of $20 million. “We can always go to the legislature and request more. I think having that extra $15 million in there is a very dangerous precedent to set,” Brathwaite said.
A motion by Israel to set the number at $22 million failed.
“If we have some catastrophic event, we need to react right away,” Thornton said of the $35 million. “This is the vehicle to do that.”
Brian Dowd contributed to this report.