Soundings: Micromanaging the MVC

The Edgartown selectmen have been known to protest against the popular Island perception of Edgartown as the Island town that plays least well with others. They haven’t done their argument any good by placing an article on the December 14 special meeting warrant, asking voters to begin the process of removing Edgartown from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).

Remarkably, the selectmen and their appointee to the MVC, James Joyce, are maintaining that Edgartown is somehow being shafted because its taxpayers contribute more than those of other Island towns toward the MVC’s operating budget. In fact, the MVC is funded by a regional tax on all the Island’s real estate. This means that if you own a $1 million piece of Edgartown, you’re paying not one penny more or less to the MVC than the owner of an equally valuable property in any other Island town. What could possibly be fairer than that?

In addition to complaining that Edgartown pays an unfair share, the selectmen and finance committee have been suggesting for some time that the MVC is a fiscal loose cannon, its costs running out of control. Here again, the facts are not on their side.

In fact, the MVC had 10 people on its payroll a decade ago, and has 10 people on its payroll today. The MVC’s preliminary budget for next fiscal year (we’re talking seriously preliminary here — it won’t be final until late January) is flat-funded compared to this year’s; this year’s MVC assessment to the towns is actually lower than that of last year; and last year’s budget was flat-funded from the year before.

Edgartown had a spat with the Martha’s Vineyard Commission in 2009, when the agency had the nerve to include a one percent cost of living allowance (COLA) for its staff. The selectmen asked townspeople, in a symbolic vote, to withhold the Edgartown assessment to the MVC — and when voters complied, the selectmen then had to expend our tax dollars on a special town meeting to appropriate the money which Edgartown, by statute, is required to pay the commission. So much for fiscal prudence. (At that same special meeting last October, town leaders requested and voters agreed to a three percent COLA for all town employees — triple the MVC allowance that had so piqued Edgartown’s official wrath.)

But wait a minute: Is it really the job of any Edgartown board, be it the selectmen or the finance committee, to dictate the details of an MVC budget that is level-funded from the year before? The Martha’s Vineyard Commission isn’t a department of any Island town. It’s a separate regional entity, accountable directly to the citizens who elect its commissioners. As voters, we have as much power to replace the commissioners of the MVC as we do to elect and replace our selectmen. If we, as voters, want to change the MVC’s direction, electing new commissioners is how we do it.

It’s been suggested, by some of the usual critics who seem ever-poised to weigh in whenever the MVC comes under this sort of attack, that too many of the commissioners are lifers with the agency and that perhaps term limits are in order. Here’s another theory that’s blissfully unsupported by the facts. First, if you run the roster of current MVC commissioners and do the math, their median longevity with the agency is just three years. Second, we already do have term limits — they’re called elections. And if nobody steps up to challenge an incumbent and give voters a choice, how can that possibly be the incumbent’s fault?

At present only two MVC commissioners — Christina Brown and Linda Sibley — have served for more than seven years with the agency. They were returned to office in November with 4,391 votes and 4,121 votes respectively, the highest tallies received by any MVC candidates in this election year.

It’s worth noting that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts sets the terms of our town planning board members at five years rather than three — perhaps because there’s a learning curve involved, and volumes of complex rules to absorb. I’d suggest that serving on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission involves a similar learning curve, and that we’d all do better worrying about who will step up as the next generation of MVC leadership than about those few people who are bringing much-needed continuity and historical context to the agency’s work.

Finally, an ironic note: A couple of weeks back, when the MVC voted on the proposed development of the Wave Lengths Salon property on upper Main Street in Edgartown, all but two of the commissioners agreed that the regional agency’s concerns had been addressed to their satisfaction, and that they trust the town of Edgartown to carry on and complete the permitting process. The two commissioners who voted against approving the project and entrusting it to Edgartown were Holly Stephenson of Tisbury and Edgartown’s own James Joyce — the very man who is now arguing that his town can go it alone, without the MVC’s added layer of protection.

This year, I’m paying $2,500 to insure my home against fire, storms, and other natural disasters. I’m paying the Martha’s Vineyard Commission just $18 to keep an eye on the environmental issues that protect my investment on the Island and make this such a delightful place to live. That $18 is, in my view, the best and cheapest insurance policy of all — and I’m not the least bit grateful to my town leaders for threatening secession in an effort to shave that payment by the cost of a latte or even two.

On Tuesday, December 14, when we’re asked whether Edgartown should leave the commission, you can count me among the nays.