After more than an hour of impassioned debate Tuesday, some of it biting and personal, voters effectively killed a proposal that would have Edgartown take the first step toward leaving the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).
The special town meeting warrant article sparked a political donnybrook, in contrast to the usually staid, often passive, and always efficient progress that typically marks the political process in the picture postcard Island town.
Three hundred five registered voters spent the frigid December evening in the Old Whaling Church. That’s nearly as many as usually attend the annual spring town meeting.
Town officials and the MVC have clashed in recent years over affordable housing, wind regulations, and most of all, MVC spending.
The latest dispute came when the MVC began its annual budget process with a draft spending plan that called for 4.5 percent staff pay hikes, and a 5.5 percent increase in the assessment to Edgartown for the agency’s operating costs.
The planning agency is now considering a budget that would mean no increase in the assessment to Edgartown.
Selectman Art Smadbeck, a frequent critic of MVC finances, was first to speak on the special town meeting floor. He said people have criticized the board and accused selectmen of attacking the MVC.
“To the contrary, our interest is in the responsible expenditure of taxpayer dollars,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “Our finance and advisory committee has been attempting to have a dialogue with the MVC over the past five years and have been frustrated at the lack of response.”
He noted that currently only two of the 17 voting MVC commissioners represent Edgartown. “Two seats at the table does not represent enough of a voice to be heard,” Mr. Smadbeck said. “Every town department has been very sensitive to the current fiscal climate and has worked very hard to cut expenses where they can. The MVC has been reluctant to follow suit.”
That drew a response from voter Bruce Stone, who supported the current formula for funding the MVC, which is based by law on equalized valuation.
“From 2007 to 2011, the [MVC] assessment went up 5.8 percent,” Mr. Stone said. “Edgartown’s tax levy in that time period has gone up 24 percent. If the selectmen are concerned about fiscal responsibility, I don’t think it’s the commission budget that’s the problem.”
Some former MVC commissioners spoke, some in favor, some against the article. But it was a former employee, and a current employee, that really got the meeting wound up.
Pia Webster, who said she worked for the MVC from 1999 to 2003, said she hoped the article would be rejected, but she hoped also that it gave the MVC a good scare. While supporting the agency’s work, she said her “condescension radar” goes crazy when the MVC goes before town selectmen and the finance and advisory committee.
“It infuriated me when I read in the newspaper about the 4.5 percent pay raises,” Ms. Webster said. “It is so tone-deaf, it is so blind, it is so dunderheaded and misguided. You’re so out of tune, you’re not hearing what our selectmen are saying. I’m for you, but I’m embarrassed for you, too.”
Later, MVC administrator Jeffrey Wooden, who handles fiscal, administrative, and human resource operations for the agency, said it is a little disingenuous to refer to the early 4.5 percent pay raise forecast that was in the preliminary budget.
“That number was the very first number that was thrown out,” Mr. Wooden said. He said the current budget draft is funded at the same level as the previous year. “We have no COLA, we’ve eliminated that.”
He pointed out that in the current fiscal year, Edgartown voters approved a budget with no cost of living adjustment (COLA) for town employees, but last fall after a review of finances, granted employees a cost of living raise, on top of any step raises they were due.
Then he took aim at the selectmen, specifically chairman Margaret Serpa, for a statement printed in the Vineyard Gazette.
“We just sort of kicked it around and said why not. It’s only a first step, it’s only an opinion type of thing anyway,” the newspaper quotes Ms. Serpa as saying, in a November 19 article.
“I don’t know about you,” Mr. Wooden told the town meeting, “but I find that an extremely cavalier attitude about such an important issue.”
That drew Edgartown finance and advisory committee member Fred Condon to the microphone. Mr. Condon and Mr. Wooden, both with wide experience in financial matters, have clashed repeatedly over the years. Mr. Condon noted a previous speaker called the issue political.
“I’m going to suggest it’s attitudinal,” Mr. Condon said. “To get to the bottom of it, it’s probably got to get personal. When two groups are not able to get along, to converse, to come to common ground that’s good for the Island, good for everybody, it only gets worse. To come up here, Mr. Wooden, and try to pick a fight with what was said, instead of come up here with open ears and say ‘gee, I’m starting to get it. Maybe it’s my attitude,’ maybe that would be a beginning.”
Ms. Serpa took the floor as the debate wound down, to make a point about what she sees as the discrepancy in assessment to Island towns.
“Edgartown presently pays $286,000,” Ms. Serpa said. “The nearest town to that pays $126,000. When we put out word that the article would be on the town meeting, then they came in with a level budget.”
Throughout the evening, as speaker after speaker hammered their points home, the applause appeared evenly divided on the issue. Several observers thought a vote would have been very close.
Selectmen Michael Donaroma, a former MVC chairman, had the last word.
“We felt this was the place all this should be talked about,” Mr. Donaroma said. “We brought it here to listen, and to let the town hear.”
He said Edgartown should get some of the credit for MVC permits that prevented development opposed by many.
“It went to the local boards and the local boards brought it to the commission. The commission worked with the local boards. All that wonderful stuff happened because we got along, we really worked together well.”
Mr. Donaroma, who moved to table the article indefinitely, did so in the final minutes of the long debate. His motion passed on a voice vote that moderator Jeff Norton declared unanimous.
“I just felt like maybe the right thing to do is to continue working on this,” Mr. Donaroma said the day after the meeting. “I think for once, people really heard us, and heard the arrogance we’ve had to deal with. Maybe they’ll listen to us, for once.”
The meeting immediately pitched into the next article, which would authorize selectmen to enter into long-term contracts for development of a town-sponsored solar energy project. Proponents estimate the power generated could reduce the town’s electric bill by at least half.
The meeting, already in a cantankerous mood, approved the measure, but not before approval on a voice vote, then a small revolt on the floor, then reconsideration of the vote, then approval of an amendment to make a minor wording change, then defeat of an amendment to exempt farm land from solar projects.
Earlier, the first four articles on the warrant passed quickly, with little debate.
The voters approved a swap of conservation land that will allow expansion and improvement of the hangar at Katama Airfield; a change in job descriptions recommended by a management consultant who studied the Council on Aging staff structure, and a measure that allows the wastewater commission to use surplus grant funds to purchase sewer pumps.