Tisbury-Oak Bluffs committee, fishermen clash over consolidation

A testy exchange at an August 11 meeting of a Tisbury-Oak Bluffs joint committee formed to study regionalization of services in the two down-Island port towns illustrated the prickly nature of the debate that will dog town leaders looking to save costs through consolidation.

The focus of last Wednesday’s meeting was shellfish.

Oak Bluffs charter boat captain Bob Weiss cast a pointed question at Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, chairman of the committee examining a joint shellfish department.

“What initiated this committee?” Mr. Weiss said. “Did you start or initiate this shellfish committee between Oak Bluffs and Vineyard Haven because you thought you were going to save money?”

“Two reasons,” Mr. Israel replied. “One is to look and see if we can save money, and two, to look and see if we can have a more holistic approach to the management of the pond (Lagoon Pond).”

“If those are your two reasons Tristan, you’re living in another world,” Mr. Weiss said.

The turf issues, economic, and personal concerns that flow deep boiled to the surface during more than one hour of often angry discussion interrupted by shouted comments.

The heated exchanges frustrated committee member George Balco, former Tisbury finance committee member and a retired businessman. “We’re looking for ways to save money,” Mr. Balco said. “We’re not going to get into the details, you guys are all experts in this. I don’t know anything about shellfishing. I do know a little bit about number crunching.”

In the current fiscal year, Oak Bluffs taxpayers budgeted $177,314 on shellfish programs.The Tisbury shellfish department will cost taxpayers $132,502.

Committee charge

Selectmen formed the joint six-member advisory committee to study how regionalized services might save money or improve efficiency and provide recommendations. Any changes would require the approval of the selectmen in each town and a vote at town meetings.

In addition to Mr. Israel and Mr. Balco, the committee includes Dan Seidman of Tisbury, a former associate member of the zoning board of appeals; and from Oak Bluffs selectman Ron DiOrio, community activist and fundraiser Eleanor Beth and James Westervelt, a member of the town’s community development council.

The committee was asked to first explore regionalizing the shellfish department and animal control department, and then look at other town departments where benefits might be found. A separate committee is examining a joint police department.

Budget cuts in Oak Bluffs have reduced the shellfish department work force, shrinking the number of hours worked by 48 hours per week, according to shellfish constable David Grunden. Many programs including propagation of mussels, steamers, and bay scallops were eliminated or drastically cut back.

Order, disorder

On Wednesday, the joint committee met for its second public meeting, ready to hear a report and initial ideas from Mr. Grunden.

The Oak Bluffs library meeting room was packed with commercial fishermen and their supporters, most staunchly opposed to the two shellfish departments joining forces.

Before the meeting began, many fishermen carried out a loud discussion about the makeup of the joint committee, which does not include any commercial fishermen.

Mr. DiOrio said the meeting was not a public hearing, but an informal discussion to explore possibilities. Mr. Israel, the committee chairman, was late to the meeting, so the other five members began without him. Mr. Grunden began a presentation outlining shellfish programs, and some of the issues raised by regionalization.

Not a minute went by before several in the audience raised their hands. Oak Bluffs fisherman Bill Alwardt interrupted the discussion.

“Point of order, I’d like to know who these people are,” Mr. Alwardt said, in a confrontational voice that left little doubt about the tone he planned to adopt.

The committee introduced themselves, and returned to their discussion, as many fishermen chafed, squirmed, muttered, and raised their hands to be recognized. Mr. DiOrio waved off several more interruptions, again explaining the meeting was to gather information from Mr. Grunden.

Mr. Grunden outlined the structure of the current shellfish departments, and raised issues he thought the committee should consider. Among them, to develop a single set of rules and policies, establish a clear chain of department supervision, and define enforcement powers. “First and foremost,” Mr. Grunden said, “are reciprocal fishing rights. Certainly, fishermen in both towns will oppose this.”

The mention of these issues served to further agitate many of the fishermen, who stepped up the rate of interruptions.

“Excuse me, we’re having a presentation,” Mr. DiOrio said, to head off one such disruption.

Late debate

Mr. Israel arrived approximately 40 minutes after the meeting began and assumed the chairmanship. “I want to apologize to the committee,” Mr. Israel said. “I have some excuses, but they’re lame.”

Mr. Israel promised to schedule a future public meeting where fishermen could question the committee. At Wednesday’s meeting, he agreed to take one comment from anyone who wished to speak. At that point, the meeting descended into dysfunction. Mr. Israel tried to limit comments to regionalization issues. The fishermen aired a litany of gripes that often had little to do with that subject.

“If I’m over the line in Tisbury, it isn’t his (Mr. Grunden’s) job to push me back,” Mr. Alwardt said. “It’s the Tisbury shellfish warden’s job to make sure I don’t fish in their town. His job is to make sure Tisbury fishermen are not fishing in Oak Bluffs.”

The mere mention of reciprocal fishing rights by Ms. Beth caused a small eruption. “No way,” Mr. Alwardt said from his front row seat. “No way, that ain’t happening.”

Shellfisherman Steve Amaral, a longtime member of the Oak Bluffs shellfish committee, questioned the process. “I’m against regionalization,” Mr. Amaral said. “I’m looking at three selectmen in Vineyard Haven, five in Oak Bluffs, that’s eight people. I don’t want to see eight people turn around and make a decision that’s going to affect all the voters, and all the taxpayers in both towns. If it goes that way, I’m going to get a petition up, and turn around, and we’ll have it go to a town meeting.”

When the committee finally returned to the purpose of their meeting, gathering facts and discussing issues, only a few commercial fishermen were left in the audience. One of them was Mr. Alwardt, who carried on a loud conversation in the back of the room.

“We’re paying him to sit here,” Mr. Alwardt said, referring to Mr. Grunden. “He’s on our clock.”

The committee ignored him, and continued their discussion for a short time, but so quietly that it was nearly impossible to hear them. The committee adjourned.

Mr. Israel refused to answer any questions after the meeting. “I don’t want to comment to The Times at this point,” Mr. Israel said.