Longstanding tensions between the Dukes County Commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission over who really runs the airport wound up in superior court this week, when airport commissioners filed a complaint against the very body that appoints them.
In the complaint filed May 1 and amended this week, the airport claims the county commission, along with county manager Martina Thornton and county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders, are seeking to “unlawfully interfere with and obstruct the functioning of the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission.”
In a separate complaint also filed this week in Dukes County superior court, former airport employee Beth Tessmer seeks reinstatement of her position by the airport commission, claiming she was unfairly discharged from her employment there.
Falmouth attorney Theodore Saulnier argues in a complaint filed May 6, that grievances Ms. Tessmer brought against her employer should have been handled by the county commission, and not the airport commission.
Conflict over control of the airport dates back more than a decade when the two commissions last wound up in court over whether the airport or the county controlled the hiring and pay of airport managers. In 2005, the commissions reached a compromise agreement that gave the airport commission the absolute authority to hire the airport manager and assistant manager, but stipulated that those managers would be paid as county employees according to the county wage scale.
Airport commission chairman Norman Perry, reached Thursday, called the new airport filing in court a “housekeeping civil complaint.”
“There is no lawsuit in this; it is just to have them reviewed for further clarification by a judge,” he said.
Mr. Perry said he was unaware of the employee lawsuit, but said Ms. Tessmer probably would have kept her job if she had agreed to mediation. “That was a shame,” he said.
But taken together, the latest legal actions offer new insights into the extent of the disaffection between the airport commission and the Dukes County commission. Last month, the county commission removed and replaced two airport commissioners, longtime member and current chairman John Alley and Benjamin L. Hall Jr.
The airport’s complaint seeks to gain further legal recognition of its independence from the county government, detailing four counts for declaratory and injunctive relief. First among them is a claim that the county manager is not entitled to sit as ex-officio member on the airport commission. According to the county’s administrative code and Massachusetts General Law, the county manager serves as ex-officio member on any appointive board. Two weeks ago, the county commission voted to recognize the ex-officio membership of the county manager on the airport commission, after she reportedly had been denied entrance to parts of meetings held in executive session. The complaint argues, however, that state legislation governing all municipal airports, “makes no provision for any ex-officio, nonvoting members.”
And the complaint further says that the airport is subject to federal and state laws that establish the airport’s autonomy separate from the county.
Airport manager Sean Flynn said Thursday that Ms. Thornton had not been invited to attend executive sessions, but had also never pushed for access. He said he couldn’t remember a time when the county manager had sat in on an executive session during his tenure at the airport.
The county treasurer is named in the other three counts, which allege that Ms. Mavro Flanders refused to pay legal bills that had certain information redacted, made efforts to obtain privileged legal information and released possibly confidential information to an outside party.
The personnel dispute began in late November, when Ms. Tessmer, former fixed base operator administrator at the airport, was suspended for two weeks for insubordination.
Ms. Tessmer, whose employment was terminated in April, contends that she followed the county procedure for employee disputes but that process was derailed when the airport adopted their own resolution procedure.
“They did this in the middle of her grievance and forced her to restart her grievance procedure,” said Ms. Tessmer’s attorney, Theodore Saulnier, in a telephone interview Thursday.
“It’s really narrowly focused on the question, was Ms. Tessmer afforded all the rights she should have been afforded in the hearings they used to discipline and ultimately discharge her?” he said.
Contacted Thursday, Mr. Flynn declined to comment on either of the lawsuits filed this week.
“I can’t comment on any one of them but at a later point I might be able to,” he said.
Mr. Flynn did provide minutes from a Dec. 6 meeting which indicate the airport commission voted to adopt an interim dispute resolution procedure for non-union personnel. “It was agreed that the policy could be utilized by any airport employee involved in a current dispute or who had already filed a grievance with the county,” according to the minutes from that meeting.