County Weighs Legal Choices

Commission, Advisors Huddle in Aftermath of Court Ruling Ordering Triple Damages; Appeal Still Possible

By JAMES KINSELLA

Still reeling from a heavy blow dealt by a superior court judge last week in a civil dispute with its own airport commission, the Dukes County commission this week began to ponder the next steps.

Two weeks ago the Hon. Robert J. Bohn ruled that the Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission is by law vested with independent authority to hire and set the salaries of its airport managers.

If the decision is allowed to stand, the county faces monetary damages that could exceed $500,000, including attorneys fees, interest and triple damages on unpaid salaries to the two airport managers.

The case is rooted in the county's refusal to pay salaries to former airport manager William Weibrecht and assistant manager Sean Flynn at levels negotiated by the airport commission.

On Tuesday this week, Michael Gilman, a labor attorney who represents the county in the case, filed a motion to amend the order to pay triple damages. Mr. Gilman filed the motion at the direction of county manager E. Winn Davis.

The motion is based on a state Supreme Judicial Court decision earlier this month that found judges have discretion in wage breach of contract cases whether to require treble damages.

The total amount of money that the county may owe is still unclear, because interest, which by law is charged at 12 per cent, has not been computed, and attorneys for the plaintiffs have not yet submitted their legal bills to the court.

But Judge Bohn ruled that on salaries alone, Mr. Weibrecht is owed $255,678, and Mr. Flynn is owed $181,000. The airport commission has been setting aside wages pending the outcome of the case.

Harry Beach, the Norwell attorney representing both Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn, said this week that his fees so far total about $85,000.

On Wednesday night, both the county commissioners and the county advisory board met in separate executive sessions to discuss strategy in the case. While the county commissioners make policy, the advisory board has the final say on whether to approve county expenditures.

Mr. Davis said both boards are considering, among other options, whether to pursue and fund an appeal.

"I was very pleased by the tenor of discussion and by the questions that were asked," he said following the executive sessions. The commission and board, Mr. Davis said, were neither eager to wash their hands of the matter, nor pursue the case in a gung ho fashion.

Normally, Mr. Davis said, the county would have 30 days to appeal the judgment. But he said the filing of the motion Tuesday stops the clock until the judge can act on the motion.

Mr. Davis also said he expects the county commissioners will begin in about three weeks a public discussion about whether to pursue the case further. The commissioners eventually will take a public vote on what to do in the case, including whether to drop the matter or appeal.

So far, the county and airport commissioners have spent more than $300,000 in legal bills on the case. Legal expenses are paid by county taxpayers.

Mr. Gilman argues in his motion that the triple damages are unwarranted and no longer mandated by law, given the recent decision by the state's highest court.

But Mr. Beach said yesterday that the presentation of evidence shows bad faith and personalized attacks by the county on Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn, and he believes the judge will stand firm on the triple damages.

The county advisory board must eventually confront the problem of how to pay for both damages and legal expenses associated with the case, and the prospect of a Proposition 2/1/2 override looms. "It's a question of how we're going to pay for it, and how we're going to pay for it," said advisory board chairman John Early, who is also a West Tisbury selectman.

Mr. Davis has already begun to explore funding sources, and he said this week he believes he can find about $150,000 in unspecified places in the budget to use toward a damage award. After that, he said, the county would have to ask from help from the towns.

Advisory board member Tristan Israel said the board has the power to veto further spending on the case, although that does not mean the board necessarily will do so.

Pressed for reaction to the court ruling in open session Wednesday night, county commissioners remained mostly mum as they headed into executive session.

"Personally I was surprised. I have not read the full document, but I suspect before leaving the building we will all know more about it," said commission chairman John Alley.