An employee at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport is at the center of a tangled workplace dispute that has occupied the airport commission as charges and countercharges play out both publicly and behind closed doors.
Beth Tessmer is employed by the airport as a fixed base operator administrator, but has been disciplined by the airport commission in the last few months and is currently on paid administrative leave. She was also suspended for two weeks without pay in November for insubordination. Her formal appeal of that action has been the subject of two proceedings before the airport commission.
Meanwhile, she has filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination claiming sexual harassment and retaliation in the workplace. The complaint names airport manager Sean Flynn, the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, the Dukes County Commission, the County of Dukes County and assistant airport manager Deborah Potter.
The MCAD complaint and Ms. Tessmer’s appeal of her suspension have been the subject of a series of meetings before the county and airport commissions, some held in executive session and some televised on MVTV, in recent weeks.
A complaint obtained by the Gazette from MCAD and dated Nov. 22 alleges employment discrimination and the creation of a hostile work environment under Mr. Flynn’s leadership. Mr. Flynn has been airport manager since 2005. Previously he served as acting manager and assistant manager.
The four-page document was filed with MCAD and signed on Ms. Tessmer’s behalf by her attorney Theodore Saulnier, the former police chief in Tisbury who is now a practicing attorney in Falmouth. It lists eight separate complaints that describe incidents that allegedly took place between 2005 and 2013. The alleged incidents involve Mr. Flynn’s treatment of Ms. Tessmer’s private life, and in the complaint she claims an “ongoing pattern of discrimination based on gender and one or many perceived handicaps.”
Ms. Tessmer did not return telephone calls seeking comment on her complaint. Most parties named in the complaint declined to comment.
Mr. Flynn said he had no comment professionally.
“Personally, my comment is that these are, until they are referred by the competent court of jurisdiction, merely complaints, allegations, and we are handicapped in our response, in what we can say to you, the press, to defend ourselves,” he said Thursday.
He said his first responsibility was to honor the rights of the employee.
Parties in the case have questioned whether the MCAD complaint is public record. Regulations for the state agency state that the initial charge, or complaint, filed with the state agency “shall be available for public inspection upon making appropriate arrangements with the commission.” Exceptions are allowed for charges that are placed under protective order by MCAD or processed as a pseudonym complaint. Ms. Tessmer’s complaint appears to be neither of those.
According to the complaint, Ms. Tessmer has been an employee at the airport since 2004. She was promoted to her current position last August, a management position, which meant she was no longer a union employee.
The complaint also claims that Ms. Tessmer was suspended by Mr. Flynn two weeks after she had visited MCAD offices in Boston to inquire about filing a complaint. The state agency is charged with protecting civil rights in the workplace.
Among other things the complaint claims Mr. Flynn, her supervisor, made verbal references to her body at the workplace, and preoccupied himself with her work attire. It alleges that she was subjected to repeated, detailed comments about her manner of dress and its appropriateness for the workplace. “No other employee has been subject to such comments at the airport,” the complaint says in part.
At an open meeting held last week the airport commission voted to go into mediation to resolve the various disputes with Ms. Tessmer, including the MCAD complaint. In order for that to occur, Ms. Tessmer must agree to mediation. The Gazette was unable to confirm with her attorney whether she had agreed.
Earlier, in a meeting on Jan. 24, the airport commission voted to uphold Ms. Tessmer’s suspension. The meeting was held in public at the request of Ms. Tessmer. The commission took the same action in a rehearing on Feb. 12. The rehearing was held as a result of a typographical error on the original meeting notice posting.
A videorecording of the Feb. 12 meeting on the Martha’s Vineyard Community Television website as well as minutes provided by the airport manager on Thursday, show that in a separate agenda item that day, the airport commissioners discussed two charges brought against Ms. Tessmer by airport management in a letter which might put her at risk for termination.
In the letter, airport management claims that Ms. Tessmer allegedly aided union employees in filing grievances, a violation of state law. She was further observed to have removed a copy of the staffing schedule from the airport premises, a violation of security protocol, the letter said. Both of the actions were allegedly caught on security videotape and reviewed by Ms. Potter the assistant manager, Mr. Flynn the manager and John Alley, the chairman of the airport commission. At the conclusion of the Feb. 12 meeting, the airport manager spoke of Ms. Tessmer’s previous success as an airport worker.
“I do want you to know that Beth did a fantastic job in her customer service position,” Mr. Flynn said. “She works well with the customers, with the people that walk through the door . . . that was the premise for her promotion. This is not about that, and this is merely about the issues, and I felt like I left that out.”