Six-Year County Lawsuit Comes to an End

By JAMES KINSELLA
Gazette Senior Writer

The epic six-year battle over control of the Martha's Vineyard Airport has ended not with a bang, but with the mailing of checks.

In the end, the court case at the center of the battle cost at least $608,374 - in payments to the two airport managers who brought the lawsuit and in legal fees charged by the attorneys.

Dukes County manager E. Winn Davis said Tuesday that the county last week sent payments to former airport manager William Weibrecht and current airport manager Sean Flynn, and to their attorney, Harry C. Beach of Norwood.

Mr. Davis said the payments effectively end the court case launched in late 2002 by Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn. "I'm considering it done," Mr. Davis declared.

"I'm just happy that it's over with," Mr. Flynn said Wednesday. "It's been four long years."

The case, sparked by the county's decision in 2000 to pay the airport managers at lower salaries than those negotiated by the Martha's Vineyard Airport commission, served as the centerpiece in a struggle over control of the airport by the Dukes County and airport commissions.

Fallout from the battle has permeated Dukes County government. Five of the seven airport commissioners earlier this year either resigned or did not win reappointment. Mr. Weibrecht left the airport for a job in the private sector. And a charter study commission has been proposed to investigate in what form, if any, county government should continue on the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands.

But the financial stakes in the court case lessened following a judicial decision last month to strike the treble damages initially awarded by the judge on the case, the late Hon. Robert H. Bohn Jr., associate justice of the superior court.

On Tuesday, county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders said that the county, disbursing airport funds, had sent Mr. Weibrecht back wages of $74,333 and interest of $22,846. Mr. Flynn received back wages totaling $57,367 and interest of $18,888.

The county, required to pay the legal fees of the plaintiffs, sent a payment of $90,940 from the county general fund to the plaintiffs' attorney, Mr. Beach.

Through early August 2005, the county had spent about $161,000 in legal fees on the case. The airport commission had spent about $183,000. Information about subsequent county and airport spending on the case was not available this week.

Mr. Davis announced the case's conclusion at the county commission meeting Wednesday.

"We're happy it's over with," he said.

Going forward, he said, the county commission intends to cooperate with, and to receive cooperation from, the airport commission, whose members are appointed by the county commissioners.

He said he, county commission chairman John Alley and airport commission chairman Norman Perry plan to draft a memorandum of agreement between the county and airport commissions.

"I'm glad that this is over," Mr. Perry said yesterday about the case. "I think it's great. We got a good teamwork going on with the county now."

Mr. Weibrecht declined to speak about the outcome of the case. "I'm still not ready to provide any comment," said Mr. Weibrecht, who resigned as airport manager in May 2005 to take a job as chief operating officer of Rectrix Aerodrome Centers, a private aviation service with offices in Hyannis and in Sarasota, Fla. The airport commission named Mr. Flynn acting manager and later manager of the airport.

Relations between the county commission and the airport commission have been contentious for close to a decade.

While the county owns the airport, the airport commission is charged under state law with its supervision.

Push came to shove in 2000, when the airport commission hired Mr. Weibrecht as airport manager and Mr. Flynn as assistant airport manager. The county commission, county manager Carol Borer and county advisory board for finances refused to go along with the salaries negotiated for the managers by the airport commission, instead paying lesser amounts.

The airport commission continued to vote salary increases for the managers, which the county refused to honor. In 2002, the managers sued the airport commission for breach of contract. The airport commission in turn sued the county commission.

In February 2005, the case went to trial before Judge Bohn, who decided last July for the plaintiffs. The judge also awarded the managers treble damages from the county for breaching the contracts in bad faith, an added cost of $291,000.

Widespread dismay on the Vineyard over the potential cost of the essentially intramural battle sparked cries to revise or possibly disband county government. Earlier this year, the county commission moved to give voters a chance in the state election this November to create a charter commission to study the county and make recommendations.

On May 23, the Hon. Richard T. Moses, the associate justice of the superior court who had been assigned the case following the death of Judge Bohn, ruled that the county did not act in bad faith and overturned the treble damages. The following day, the county and airport commissions held a joint meeting and decided against filing appeals in the case.

Speaking yesterday about airport and county relations, Mr. Perry said: "We're ready to go forward, finally."