County Turmoil Increases As Ousted Commissioners Level Bad Faith Charges

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

Anger continues to swirl around appointments to the Martha's Vineyard airport commission, with two commissioners questioning a series of events that delayed their swearing in - and opened the way to drop them from the commission.

New appointments to the airport commission were put on hold this week while the Dukes County commission seeks a written opinion from the state ethics commission on possible disqualification of airport commission candidates with various ties to the airport.

The county commission plans to fill five seats on the seven-member airport commission. Twelve candidates have applied.

At the county commission meeting Wednesday, airport commission chairman Jesse (Jack) Law 3rd and airport commissioner Leslie Leland challenged county manager E. Winn Davis and the county commission on why an appointment letter was made available for airport commissioner John Alley, but letters were not available for them. Mr. Alley is chairman of the county commission.

"There's stuff going on," said Mr. Leland, who also is a county commissioner. "It's going to be looked at."

Mr. Davis denied any stuff was going on. By the time he was ready to sign the appointment letters, he said, the county commissioners already were calling for a meeting to rescind their votes to reappoint Mr. Leland and Mr. Law.

When the two men did not receive their appointment letters, it meant that they could not be sworn in - and that the county commission could reverse the appointment votes.

"You can sit there, Winn, and look at me and tell me nothing was going on with a straight face?" Mr. Law asked.

"Absolutely," Mr. Davis replied.

"Please, please," Mr. Law said. "There's something wrong with the process in this board."

Tensions between the county commission and the airport commission boiled over last month after the airport commission voted to award a contract to its new airport manager, Sean Flynn, and pay him outside the county pay scale.

The decision was at odds with a governance agreement signed last June by the two commissions, in which the airport commission agreed to pay its manager according to the pay scale, and to not award the manager a contract.

On Jan. 11, the county commission met. Part of its business concerned the filling of three seats on the airport commission. The three incumbents - Mr. Law, Mr. Leland and Mr. Alley - were the sole candidates for the seats.

At an earlier airport commission meeting, Mr. Law and Mr. Leland had voted in favor of the airport manager's contract. Mr. Alley had voted against it.

At the Jan. 11 county commission meeting, the commissioners voted 6-0 to reappoint Mr. Alley to the airport commission. They then reappointed Mr. Law and Mr. Leland on 4-2 votes, with Mr. Alley and county commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. dissenting.

Mr. Jason said he could not vote for Mr. Law or Mr. Leland because they were among the airport commission members who spent public money to conduct a search for a new manager, and then chose Mr. Flynn over the search firm's recommendation.

As far as Mr. Law and Mr. Leland knew, however, they were back on the airport commission. But the events of the next 24 hours led to a different result.

County commissioners Nelson Smith and Paul Strauss had voted in favor of reappointing Mr. Law and Mr. Leland. But they began having second thoughts after responding to questions during public comment about the governance conflict with the airport commission.

The commission then went into executive session to discuss a proposed letter to the airport commission from Mr. Davis and county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders. The letter said the county would refuse to go along with certain aspects of the employment agreement reached by the airport commission with Mr. Flynn. The commissioners voted 5-1 to send the letter, with Mr. Leland dissenting.

At that executive session, Ms. Flanders also expressed her frustration that the county commissioners had reappointed Mr. Law and Mr. Leland despite the governance conflict.

Following the meeting, Mr. Alley obtained his appointment letter. Before the meeting, he had asked county administrative assistant Deborah Potter to prepare a letter if he were appointed. He said he planned to be at Edgartown superior court the next day on other business. While there, he could bring the letter, and be sworn in by clerk of courts Joseph E. Sollitto Jr.

The evening of the Jan. 11 meeting, Ms. Potter typed the letter for Mr. Alley and Mr. Davis signed it.

According to Mr. Law and Mr. Leland, this is what happened next:

At 9 a.m. the next day (Jan. 12), Mr. Law telephoned Ms. Potter at the county administration building and said he wanted to pick up his appointment letter. After Ms. Potter said the letter could be ready in an hour, Mr. Davis spoke to her from an adjoining room and said the letter would not be ready until Friday.

Speaking at this week's meeting to Mr. Davis, Mr. Leland said, "So Jack called on Friday, again in the morning, and was told that you were not available, you were off-Island, you would not be back till Tuesday."

"I called at 9 o'clock sharp," Mr. Law said to Mr. Davis at this week's meeting. "You couldn't sign mine?"

"I signed his first, because it was ready first, and then I took off for some meetings, I don't know what time," Mr. Davis replied.

"You just left mine blank?" Mr. Law asked.

"Mm-hmm," Mr. Davis replied.

"For what reason?" Mr. Law asked.

"Because I wasn't going to come back," Mr. Davis said.

"You guys should be ashamed of yourselves," Mr. Law said. "So, that's legal, you could sign one, not the others, we're all appointed at the same time . . . So, what's wrong with this process that you guys call process?

"I don't think that's right, or moral," he continued. "I don't know about legal, because I'm not a lawyer, but that is poor, and you guys should be ashamed of yourselves and you should be, Winn. You sign one, leave Les and I out, because you have something going on."

Mr. Davis said that before he signed the appointment letters, he was notified that a meeting would be held to reconsider the appointments, so he held off on signing them.

On Tuesday, Jan. 17, the county commission held a special meeting to reconsider the airport commission appointments; the vote was 5-0 not to appoint Mr. Law and Mr. Leland. Mr. Leland did not attend the meeting.

At that meeting, airport commissioners Francis Daly and William Mill resigned in protest over the reversals. Another airport commissioner, T.J. Hegarty, had resigned earlier in the month.

Mr. Law and Mr. Leland remain members of the airport commission until new members are sworn in to take their place.

The commission now is down to four members, including Mr. Alley and Norman Law. All four members must attend meetings to reach a quorum. The commission has not achieved a quorum and hence has not held a meeting since Jan. 5.

Last week, at a special meeting held by the county commission to interview airport commission candidates, Mr. Leland introduced a letter from the airport commission counsel of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge. Mr. Leland said he and Mr. Law paid for the opinion on their own.

In the letter, attorney Kevin D. Batt said the county lacked the power to remove airport commissioners. Mr. Leland said that meant that he and Mr. Law had indeed been reappointed, and that the county commissioners should only fill three airport commission seats, not five.

At this week's meeting, Mr. Davis countered with a letter from attorney Richard J. Lettieri of Ropes & Gray, which claimed that the rescission votes were valid.

"The appointments were made, but they weren't perfected," Mr. Davis summarized. "The rights were not vested in the parties who were appointed."

Mr. Leland continues to question the fairness of the process, not to mention the delay in producing the letters.

"If you're sitting there, at the computer, you pop out the letter, you just change the name, and then you just sign three letters," he said. "It just takes five minutes . . . Our letters should have been available at the same time so we could have gone and gotten sworn in."