All-Island selectmen disagree on future storm response


At a meeting of the all-Island selectmen last Thursday, hard feelings between Edgartown and Oak Bluffs were still apparent more than three weeks after the remnants of Hurricane Earl passed southeast of Nantucket.

Despite mixed messages in the lead up to the storm that left the public confused and angry, the officials present found little agreement on the emergency management protocols they would follow in the future.

While many of those involved in the emergency response said they made mistakes and learned lessons, there was no agreement on how to improve communications. Also, emergency officials provided no clarification from legal counsel regarding what if any authority towns officials have to close roads and businesses.

Much of last week’s discussion focused on mixed messages Island residents received from public announcements and town websites. Those included travel advisories issued in some towns in contrast to road and business “closures” announced in Oak Bluffs.

On September 2, Dukes County’s Code Red reverse 911 system was used to announce a 2 pm road and business closure the following day. On Friday Sept. 3, with the storm weakening, Edgartown used Code Red to notify town residents that the advisory for road and business had been pushed back to 8 pm.

In the meantime, Oak Bluffs stuck to 2 pm even as other towns relaxed restrictions or put none in place.

Oak Bluffs selectmen Duncan Ross and Greg Coogan criticized Edgartown’s actions at their selectmen’s meeting on September 14.

In a pointed opening to the all-Island selectmen’s discussion last week, Edgartown selectman Art Smadbeck said the Code Red system was a tremendous asset in communicating with Island residents.

“Going forward,” Mr. Smadbeck said, “we have this new, nimble system to be able to communicate. It has to be used responsibly, and legally.”

Oak Bluffs selectmen Greg Coogan responded. “If the Island as a whole works together and declares an emergency, we have to find a way to stick together so that when we back it down, we back it down together,” Mr. Coogan said. “We created inconsistency and it created some hard feelings.”

“I think that we used the system nimbly, and you didn’t,” Mr. Smadbeck said.

“I don’t think I was blaming you,” Mr. Coogan said.

“I watched the meeting, I know exactly what you said,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “Each town has responsibility within its town. I don’t have any authority inside Oak Bluffs, and you don’t have any authority inside Edgartown. We didn’t make that decision in a vacuum. There was no secret. I’m happy that we did it that way. As far as the whole Island making a decision, it’s not possible.”

“I wanted to express my displeasure,” Edgartown selectman Margaret Serpa said, “for one town criticizing another town in a public, open meeting. I was very disappointed. We will continue to act in the best interest of the safety and welfare of the residents of Edgartown.”

“You don’t live in a vacuum,” Tisbury selectman Geoghan Coogan said. “You live in Edgartown, but you also live on an Island. The best interests of the people of Edgartown are also the best interests of the rest of the Island.”

“If there is going to be an Island-wide Code Red message,” West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said, “there has to be a protocol. What kind of message gets sent out, who formulates it? Otherwise if each individual town says we will send out a Code Red only to our residents, the whole idea of an Island-wide response goes by the boards.”

Legal limbo

Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell handed out copies of the state laws that, he interprets, provide the legal authority for a board of selectmen to close roads and businesses ahead of a storm.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Mr. Martell said. Referring to part of the Civil Defense Act of 1950, Mr. Martell said, “This is what we rely on to deal with emergencies. It gives the cities and towns certain powers. A state of emergency gives you a lot of powers.

“I’m very confident, but I can’t prove it, that is basically designed for road closing,” Mr. Martell said. “That’s the wording Bridgewater gave me many years ago,” he said, referring to the regional Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) office in Bridgewater.

Other Island emergency management directors, as well as local law enforcement authorities, questioned the authority to close roads and businesses.

“You, among you, should decide whether you can close businesses or close roads,” West Tisbury emergency management director John Christenson told the assembled selectmen. “Among you, could we please settle this — is it legal for us to do it or not? I would like to know the legal status. If you can close roads, fine. If you can’t don’t say it,” Mr. Christenson said.

An examination of relevant state laws by The Times found that a declaration of a local state of emergency is a financial mechanism, that allows towns to make emergency purchases without going through the time-consuming legal requirements of bidding and procurement. It also allows them to seek reimbursement for emergency expenses from state and federal governments.

The authority to declare a local state of emergency rests with the chairman of the local board of selectmen, with advice from the emergency management director. A local state of emergency carries no authority for town government to close roads or businesses. That authority rests with the governor, according to state law.

West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell suggested that the towns seek a legal opinion from their town counsel. Attorney Ron Rappaport serves as town counsel for five of the six Island towns. There was no agreement to do so, with cost cited as an issue.

After the meeting, there was a discussion about sharing the cost of the legal opinion, but reached no consensus, according to Mr. Ross. However, on Tuesday, Mr. Ross said he would ask for a legal opinion for Oak Bluffs from Mr. Rappaport.