Airport Commission Appointments Spark Resignation, Sharp Allegations
By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer
Concern over actions by the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission has spurred a former airport commissioner to call for an investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general.
The request comes as new tensions have emerged between the airport commission and the Dukes County Commission, reflected Wednesday in a pair of split votes on the reappointment of airport commissioners Jesse (Jack) Law 3rd and Leslie Leland. Mr. Leland is also a county commissioner.
Among the recent sources of tension is last Thursday's airport commission decision to offer the new airport manager, Sean C. Flynn, a salary not tied to the Dukes County employee pay scale. In setting the terms of the contract, the airport commissioners disregarded an agreement they had forged with the county commission last summer over airport governance.
This week, in a resignation letter dated Wednesday, former airport commissioner T.J. Hegarty called on the Dukes County commissioners to request an investigation. Mr. Hegarty cited the airport commission's selection of Mr. Flynn, who was not recommended by the Scituate-based Bennett Yarger Associates, the search firm hired by the commission.
Shown a copy of the letter yesterday morning, county commission chairman John Alley said the commissioners would discuss Mr. Hegarty's request at their next meeting, scheduled for Jan. 25.
In the letter, Mr. Hegarty blasted what he called "unethical back room shenanigans" in the airport commission's selection of Mr. Flynn. The complete text of the letter is published on the Commentary Page in today's Gazette.
Mr. Hegarty also called the nationwide search for an airport manager a complete sham. The airport commissioners who voted for Mr. Flynn, Mr. Hegarty wrote, were going to pick him "no matter how unqualified he was compared with any other applicants before the interviews even took place."
Mr. Law could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Concern over the recent airport commission actions came to the surface at Wednesday's meeting of the county commissioners, who were scheduled to make appointments for four seats on the seven-member airport commission.
The relationship between the county and airport commissions is a complicated one, and the two have been at odds on several fronts for some time. The county owns the airport, and the county commission appoints the members of the airport commission, which oversees airport operation; over the years county commissioners themselves have served on both commissions at the same time.
Last year, the airport commission won a key case in Dukes County Superior Court against the county commission. The case, launched in 2002 by Vineyard airport managers over a salary dispute, goes to the question of whether the airport or county commission ultimately control the airport.
At Wednesday's meeting, the county commissioners voted 4-2 to reappoint Mr. Law and 4-2 to reappoint one of their own, Mr. Leland, to the airport commission. Mr. Law and Mr. Leland were named to three-year terms.
As airport commissioners, both Mr. Law and Mr. Leland voted to select Mr. Flynn for airport manager - and to set aside the airport governance agreement with the county.
Mr. Leland, Nelson Smith, Paul Strauss and Roger Wey voted in favor of the reappointments. Mr. Alley and Leonard Jason Jr. voted against. County commissioner Robert Sawyer, acting as temporary chairman, abstained.
The commissioners also voted 6-0, with Mr. Alley abstaining, to name Mr. Alley to a two-year term on the airport commission.
In the absence of any other candidates for the airport commission, Mr. Hegarty's withdrawal leaves the commission with a vacant seat. Mr. Sawyer said the county will seek new candidates for the seat.
At Wednesday's meeting, Mr. Law, seeking reappointment to the airport commission, cited his initiative in discussions with government regulators in clearing the way for a county jail to be built at the airport. He also said he sought to resolve the airport-county dispute through mediation before it went to court.
In discussion following Mr. Law's nomination by Mr. Wey, Mr. Jason said, "I like Jack. We've been friends. But the most important part of government is following the process." He said he could not support the nomination.
Mr. Leland, seeking reappointment to the airport commission, cited his 40 years of business background and spoke of opportunities for increased revenue at the airport.
In discussion following Mr. Leland's nomination by Mr. Strauss, Mr. Jason said, "For the same reason I couldn't vote for Jack, I can't vote for you, Les."
"I respect your opinion," Mr. Leland replied.
Later in the meeting, during the public comment session, Mr. Jason explained the reasoning behind his votes against Mr. Law and Mr. Leland.
Among other things, they spent $14,000 of taxpayer money to pay for the airport manager search, Mr. Jason said, and then failed to follow protocol. "They set up a certain process. They failed to follow the process. Without process, you have chaos," he said.
Mr. Alley said he voted against reappointing the two men for primarily the same concern over the manager selection.
But Mr. Smith, who voted to reappoint Mr. Law and Mr. Leland, praised their work as public servants - though he said he did not necessarily agree with all their decisions. Mr. Strauss said he believes both men have done good work.
"I think they've done a good job," Mr. Wey said. "I disagree with some of their decisions."
Asked to what extent they were concerned about the airport commission's decision to set aside the governance agreement, Mr. Strauss said he was not highly concerned, and Mr. Wey said the decision properly rested with the airport commission, even though he did not agree with it. Mr. Smith said the decision did concern him, though he was uncertain how the airport commission's subsequent victory in the court case affected the agreement.
In a general discussion that followed, Mr. Leland said he understood that the court victory made the governance agreement moot. Mr. Alley also said the airport commission in its recent discussion viewed the agreement as a stopgap measure until the lawsuit was resolved.
Mr. Jason replied that he understood the agreement stood apart from the lawsuit. County manager E. Winn Davis said the court victory gave the airport commission the right to independently sign a contract with the new airport manager and set his salary, but did not obligate the commission to do so.
Reflecting on the discussion over setting aside the governance agreement, Mr. Strauss said, "I'm more concerned now."