At Large: Picking up the tattered threads of one of our squabbles

At Large: Picking up the tattered threads of one of our squabbles

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The story of the fish pier proposal, now under Martha’s Vineyard Commission review as a development of regional impact, offers lessons in the uncertain value of public debate. That is not to say that public debate has no value. Nor does it mean that it is the truest course to a just and sensible outcome. It’s a mix.

To most Islanders the proposal by the state, including the state’s promise to underwrite the cost, was a surprise. Although there is a logical, thematic connection between the pier plan and the continuing effort to rehab the Oak Bluffs municipal shore front, a fish pier had not been contemplated. Still, such piers are generally regarded as pleasurable for fishing, strolling, and otherwise passing the time, wherever they are installed. They’re a focus of fun, in a town whose economic job is to be fun-filled.

Although when the MVC examines in-town restaurants in neighborhoods zoned for such businesses or other proposals with no apparent regional impact, the regional regulators stretch their unwarranted discretion to the breaking point and beyond it, this fish pier might be legitimately described as deserving of a regional impact look-see. After all, it will be state-owned construction, intended to attract and to benefit any of the state’s residents who choose to use it, as well as all the Vineyard visitors, property owners, and residents. It’s planned for an Island community with a big fishing fetish, and it’s in some ways repositioning a use that had been common for many years at the Steamship Authority pier a little ways east along the beach. In that latter sense, it’s also a bit of historic restoration.

There will certainly be some immediate, though hard to measure, impacts upon residential and commercial neighbors in the North Bluff. That many of these should object to the pier plan and urge that it be abandoned or moved elsewhere makes sense. It’s entirely understandable and hardly grounds for accusations and criticisms. The slur NIMBY has become is unworthy of the debaters on topics like this one.

Of course neighbors will be concerned with the impacts they imagine will occur to their interests, as they should be. Of course, they will see the broader benefits, but in weighing those against the narrower inconveniences they expect, they may reasonably find grounds to say, whoa, not here.

The thing is that neither the opposition of the neighbors, nor the strength in numbers of the supporters can be allowed, by an agency such as the MVC, to control. Just as the neighbors weigh the imagined good and the imagined bad, and as the supporters do so for themselves, the MVC must do the same, but with a broader perspective, one that puts the opposition of the neighbors — immensely important for them — and the enthusiasm and numbers of the supporters — immensely important for them — in their helpful but more circumscribed places.

And absolutely, whether anyone will ever catch a fish from the fish pier will not be the overwhelming deciding ingredient in the debate. That’s just speculation, no matter which side you’re on. The opponents say, “oh yeah, and besides there are never any fish where you want to put the pier.” The supporters say, “there are too fish, and the pier structure will by itself attract more fish; it will be a treasure trove of fishing.”

Right, let’s move on.

Now, an emerging focal point in the raging fish pier debate has been the behavior of Paul Foley, a talented MVC employee whose job is to organize, analyze, and deliver to MVC members in coherent form the data and background they will need to decide development of regional impact issues. As it happens, Mr. Foley lives near the site of the proposed fish pier. He opposes it.

That’s his right of course. The notion, embraced by fish pier opponents, that criticism of Mr. Foley’s behavior in opposition is an assault on his First Amendment rights, or that he is especially brave to have taken such an outspoken, even spearheading, role in attempting to defeat the proposal is a diverting sidetrack. The questions that should outlive the decision on the fish pier have to do with Mr. Foley’s judgment and the management of MVC paid staff.

As we reported last week, but many of you missed, Mr. Foley, although he ultimately dropped out of the MVC’s internal processing of the fish pier proposal, did not do so before an early, formal meeting on site with, among others, a representative of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (OEAA), which would become the applicant before the MVC. At that meeting, Mr. Foley’s status as a mere private citizen for the purpose of the fish pier review was, at the very least, in doubt. He introduced himself correctly as the MVC’s development of impact coordinator.

Many organizations, public and private, require in their personnel policies that employees be constantly aware of possible conflicts between their private interests and opinions and their work. These policies require that the employee declare the existence of such a possibility to a supervisor, who will decide whether there is indeed a conflict, or the potential for the appearance of conflict, and what to do about it, in the organization’s interest.

In some cases, this means that the employee cannot work on a particular project or issue. But, it may also mean that the employee must, in addition to not working on the project, refrain from commenting publicly on the matter or appearing as an advocate regarding the issue. It’s a common condition of employment rather than a gag order in violation of the First Amendment. Mark London, as our reporting reveals, appears to have considered only whether there was a financial conflict in his employee’s behavior, but the nature of the MVC’s regulatory role, although it may rarely raise financial conflict of interest questions, nevertheless can also raise questions of public confidence.

One looks for impartiality on the part of commission members and disinterestedness on the part of critical staff. The goal is to inspire public confidence in the public agency’s judgments. One looks for vigilance on the part of the commission members and their professional director in protecting the image of the regulatory agency as a quasi-judicial organization, before which applicants all get a fair shake.

The bones of this development of regional impact episode are Vineyard bones. As fresh as this argument is, it is an unmistakable descendant of disharmonious, self-indulgent, unrestrained Vineyard arguments past. It’s the way we get things done. Or, undone.

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