Boards Forge Peace Accord

County and Airport Commissions Find Compromise in the Tussle Over Airport Manager Salary; Lawsuit Remains Pending

By James Kinsella
Gazette Senior Writer

Caught in a costly legal battle over who controls the Martha's Vineyard Airport, the airport commission and the Dukes County commission have agreed on a compromise to help avoid such disputes in the future.

Under the plan, the airport commission would have the absolute authority to hire the airport manager and assistant airport manager, and would pay the airport managers as county employees according to the county wage scale.

The county commission voted unanimously at its meeting Wednesday to approve the plan, following the unanimous approval of the same plan a week earlier by the airport commission.

The deceptively simple agreement may hold the key to resolving a turf battle between the county and airport commissions that has stretched on for several years, and led to a still-unresolved court battle costing hundreds of thousands of county taxpayer dollars.

To date, the county commission has spent about $130,000 on the case and the airport commission has spent about $180,000.

The contending parties have based much of their argument on sections of state law that appear to contradict each other over the question of who controls the Vineyard airport: the county, which owns the airport, or the airport commission, charged by law with its supervision.

That battle began when the airport commission hired William Weibrecht and Sean Flynn as the airport manager and assistant airport manager, respectively, and agreed to pay them salaries not tied to the county wage scale.

The county refused to pay the salaries, instead paying Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn lesser amounts tied to the wage scale. In December 2002, the men sued the airport commission, which brought in the county commissioners as a third party to the complaint. The case went to trial in February and has yet to be decided by the Hon. Robert H. Bohn Jr.

Mr. Weibrecht since has resigned, largely blaming the squabble for his departure. Mr. Flynn has taken over as acting airport manager.

According to the salary agreements, Mr. Weibrecht would have been paid about $86,000 and Mr. Flynn about $67,000 a year. Instead, the county had been paying them according to its wage scale, with Mr. Weibrecht receiving $74,000 and Mr. Flynn $60,000.

John Alley, a member of the airport commission and also chairman of the county commissioners, said he and airport commissioner William Mill realized that the dispute between the airport and the county would interfere with the hiring of the next permanent airport manager.

Hence the proposal, which affirms airport control over the selection of managers, but requires the airport managers to be paid as county employees according to the county wage scale. The airport commission would not enter into contracts for the airport managers, as it did in the case of Mr. Weibrecht and Mr. Flynn.

"We came up with the proposal to try and avoid any problem of the repetition of the problems we've had," Mr. Mill said yesterday. "What I wanted was a resolution that clarified the situation."

He said the battle between the airport and the county had "cost a lot of money, created some bad feelings, and lost us an airport manager who was just great. I hope we don't lose the assistant manager, who's now the acting manager."

Mr. Mill said the proposal holds fast to the airport's stand that it hires airport managers and sets their salaries. But those salaries, Mr. Mill said, must tie with the county pay plan. Contract employees paid without respect to the county pay schedule should not expect the benefits that county employees receive, he said.

At the same time, Mr. Mill said, "Airport managers don't come cheap - not the good ones." He said the airport commission could rewrite the job description as necessary to justify a higher step on the county pay scale for a manager that the commissioner wanted to hire.

Going forward, Mr. Alley said, "This is the way business is done in the county for the people who work for the county."

County manager E. Winn Davis will send a copy of both votes to the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the regulators of the airport. Doing so, county commission member Leslie Leland said, will make it clear that both the airport and the county are on the same page.

Mr. Alley said the compromise will not affect the lawsuit now before the judge.