The Martha’s Vineyard Airport expects to spend nearly 11 times as much as it budgeted in legal fees during the fiscal year that closed last week, financial records show.
Unusually high legal spending led to a last-minute scramble to finalize a supplemental budget for the airport, which was approved at a joint meeting of the county advisory board, county commission and airport boards last Thursday, three days after the close of the fiscal year.
Records show that the airport incurred approximately $271,191 in legal expenses during fiscal year 2014. The budget called for spending $25,000 on legal services.
High legal spending at the airport is linked to several ongoing disputes between the airport and its employees and Dukes County.
The airport commission recently filed a lawsuit against the county commission asking a judge to declare its legal autonomy in managing airport affairs. Separately, the airport has also been the subject of a tangled workplace dispute involving a former employee and airport manager Sean Flynn.
The largest legal invoice received so far came from Susan M. Whalen, a Charlestown attorney who has regularly attended meetings of the airport commission and has advised the board on personnel matters. In recent months, she was working to prepare a draft personnel policy for airport employees.
Ms. Whalen billed the airport $87,907.36 for her services this past year, according to a report prepared by county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders. Other legal bills anticipated by the airport, which included a June bill from Ms. Whalen and May and June invoices from the firm Anderson and Krieger, were still outstanding and not included in the report.
Airport commission chairman Connie Teixeira did not return calls from the Gazette on Monday seeking comment.
At a meeting of the airport commission last month, concerns were raised about legal spending and the commission voted to create a subcommittee to vet legal services.
“My concern is cost,” said commissioner Richard Michelson at the time. “I think we need a general discussion or we can try to work on keeping those bills down as much as we can.”
Commissioner James Coyne agreed, but was skeptical that money could be saved on legal expenses in the near future.
“It is a big issue and I think certainly the responsibility of the board is to try to reduce legal costs generally, although a lot of the costs that are legal we don’t have control over,” he said.
Acting general manager Deborah Potter said much of the airport’s use of counsel had been advisory in nature. This past year, the airport has worked to revise leases for counter space inside the terminal building. Ms. Potter said the airport often hires off-Island attorneys.
“A lot of the lawyers, we either can’t use because they have a conflict of interest with someone they already represent on the Island, or they don’t have the aviation experience that is necessary to give us the best information for our industry,” she said.
She agreed that the airport should try to keep its expenses to a minimum.
“Sometimes you have to do your due diligence to support the organization,” she said.
Attorney Whalen, who participated in the meeting via conference call, said she felt the legal services were way too high, and that she supported the creation of a committee to look at legal costs.
In a draft $3.89 million budget for fiscal year 2015, the airport has budgeted $75,000 for legal services.
At the end of every fiscal year since at least 2008, the airport has closed its books with a surplus between $126,000 and $894,000. The funds are deposited in a reserve fund, and used toward capital improvements, said county manager Martina Thornton. This year, the budget surplus is listed at zero, but the county treasurer has projected a modest surplus once the books are closed for the month of June.
Ms. Thornton said Thursday’s meeting was the first time she has seen the three major county boards sitting together in one room. She said Arthur Smadbeck, an Edgartown selectman and member of the county advisory board, spoke to the group about working together in the best interest of the people they represent.