Oak Bluffs candidates for selectmen square off

Duncan Ross
Photo courtesy of Duncan Ross

Duncan Ross

Oak Bluffs voters will be asked, when they go to the polls on April 14, to choose among five candidates to fill two three-year terms on the five-member board of selectmen.

The election comes against the backdrop of a town struggling to regain its financial footing and features two incumbents and three challengers.

Duncan Ross retired from the Martha’s Vineyard High School after a 31-year teaching career. Mr. Ross is a veteran town official. His resume includes the finance and advisory committee, historical commission, conservation commission, and stints as town moderator. He seeks a third term.

Ron DiOrio, manager of Craftworks on Circuit Avenue, has served as a selectmen since 2006. He has played an active role in reshaping employee pay scales and serves as the chief negotiator for the town in collective bargaining with union employees. He is also chairman of the Oak Bluffs affordable housing committee, and past president of Habitat for Humanity on Martha’s Vineyard.

Mike Santoro is a managing partner of Seasons Pub and the Lookout Tavern. He is active in the Oak Bluffs Association, a business group. He has lived in Oak Bluffs for 19 years, and has volunteered at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Martha’s Vineyard, and coached baseball at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.

Walter Vail was a summer resident of Oak Bluffs for 50 years, before he moved to the Island full-time in 2008. He founded a mortgage company in New Hampshire and later served as a vice-president at Merrill Lynch. He is a director of the Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, formerly known as the Island Affordable Housing Fund.

Abraham Seiman has summered on the Island for 40 years. He recently became a full time resident. He is retired from a career in social work, teaching, and health care administration. He was active in managing a comprehensive program of elder services.

The Times emailed the following questions to each candidate. Their responses follow:

Why did you decide to run for selectman?

Mr. Ross: Because I truly love Oak Bluffs. It is a wonderfully diverse community and I am seeking a third term to continue the work that needs to be done. Like all towns it has its issues. For example, the problem with our ponds. I have been working hard toward restoring Sengekontacket to year-round shell fishing. It is a project that I wish to see to completion. We have had a rough year in our financial department but I believe we have turned the corner and with new directions we will be able to put this behind us.

Proof of this is that we have just been informed by Standard and Poor’s that we keep our bond rating of AA- which is very important for the town’s financial standing.

Mr. DiOrio: The past few years have been a challenging and rewarding experience as a member of the board of selectmen. Oak Bluffs has many more challenges ahead that will call for difficult choices to be made while trying to guide the town through tough economic times and the need to shrink the cost of government. As a life-long negotiator and policy administrator, I have the necessary skills to achieve these goals.

Mr. Santoro: Well the time is right for me to give back to the town that I love. Oak Bluffs has given me so much the past 19 years both personally and professionally. My businesses are successful and peaking to a point that allows me more free time. I am looking for another challenge in my life and with the political climate in this town as such, it is a perfect time to run. I see a huge lack of trust in our town government that is fostered by a lack of transparency and accountability. I feel a fresh new voice for all the people with a team approach will help foster trust, so we may move forward in fixing our town.

Mr. Vail: The Oak Bluffs board of selectmen needs a voice with business and financial experience. My background makes me uniquely suited for this job. I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and work to bring about a positive change in the board’s performance and reputation. My work in the financial services industry and starting my own company taught me valuable lessons on setting and managing budgets, projecting revenues, making staffing adjustments when necessary, cutting expenses, and responding to changing conditions.

Mr. Seiman: Our family felt the magic of Martha’s Vineyard and has been owners and taxpayers since 1962. Our son made it his home, worked as a chef, and owned the “Juice Caboose” until his untimely death in 2003. His wife and daughter remain residents of the town. Upon our retirement last year, my wife and I moved to our home as permanent residents.

We are invested in the success of our community. As a result, I am desirous, motivated, and capable of utilizing my educational, career and volunteer experiences in the position of Selectman. I feel my exposure to a big-city environment would be equally beneficial to the town.

Should Oak Bluffs taxpayers expect continuing budget crises? How would you tackle that problem?

Mr. Ross: That is up to all taxpayers. For years we have been balancing the budget from within the budget and not obtaining overrides when expenses have exceeded 2.5 percent.

In the last two years revenues have been way down for a variety of reasons: lower housing starts, lower income from excise tax, loss of cruise ship layovers, etc. It is time for us to put our financial situation in order by passing the override. In addition, we need additional sources of income. We can designate available town property for equipment rental space for small home businesses, create designated rental parking spaces near town for merchants and their employees, strictly enforce our business licenses and create fines for noncompliance.

Mr. DiOrio: The town has received a AA- rating from Standard and Poor’s. This is the third year in a row that we have received this rating, which is the highest in the town’s history. S&P cited their positive response to the creation of a trust to cover the town’s post-retirement medical cost and the passage of the room and meals tax. I took a leadership position on both of these issues because I understood the importance to the town’s financial well-being. We need to reduce the size of government and make better use of technology in doing the town’s business. This year’s budget is balanced, and we should expect no less in the future.

Mr. Santoro: Yes we can, if we do not make changes now. We need a more commonsense business approach that does not spend more taxpayer dollars but gets more out of the dollars we spend.

We need to be more proactive than reactive. Again, until we gain the trust of our citizens knowing that we have weeded out the inefficiencies of the budget, it will be hard for this town to move forward. We must stop using taxes as an increase in revenue in this economic downturn as our seniors, young families, and people on fixed incomes are at the breaking point. We must work as a team with our department heads, employees, and listen to our FinCom to finds ways to reduce costs. Not rehiring positions that are vacant is a start as long as services are not affected. We are in a downturn so there is less demand on our government. We must also generate more revenue. We need to set up committees to help find ways to generate more revenue. Spend-and-tax can no longer be acceptable mode of operation.

Mr. Vail: No. Oak Bluffs taxpayers should expect their elected officials to produce a balanced budget without the difficulties experienced the last few years. These are challenging economic times and predictions are that recovery will be slow, but with hard work and an attentive, hands-on board, we can do a better job managing our finances.

The board must see to it that a town accountant is in place as soon as possible to assure a smoother budget process next year and to maintain the proper checks and balances. The board must work more closely with the finance committee. I pledge to work diligently with all parties involved in the budget process to produce a budget acceptable to the board and to an informed taxpayer public. Again, this is where my experience will be an asset to the board.

Mr. Seiman: Towns will need to switch their competing philosophies to overall goals for the benefit of the entire Island. In the current economic environment it is difficult to anticipate that the budget crisis will go away in the near future. However, with concentration on planning and new ideas I hope that the situation can be ameliorated through increasing revenue and economies of scale. Some ideas that I have found successful in the past are combining large-scale entertainments involving several towns sharing of the proceeds, and asking businesses benefiting from fireworks, Illumination Night, etc. to contribute to their costs.

Should consolidation of the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury police departments be an active agenda item for selectmen?

Mr. Ross: Absolutely. We have to work out the details but it makes sense to combine services when appropriate. I believe there are many areas where we can work cooperatively with other towns. In this economy it just doesn’t make sense to duplicate everything six times.

Mr. DiOrio: I believe we must act in support of the proposal to enter into an agreement with Tisbury for a unified police force. Clear lines of responsibility must be established and understood by the citizens of both towns. Savings will come from a unified command of the police department that serves the needs of all our citizens.

Mr. Santoro: Yes. Consolidation of police and other services should be considered but only after more review of the proposal. Our police department serves our community well now. My concern is will it compromise the quality of policing and the efficiency of service we receive now? Will we lose control of the budgeting process as a town with the proposed police department oversight committee taking control? Will there be more traffic generated at the current Oak Bluffs police station? Not a quick fix to our budget woes but something we should continue to explore.

Mr. Vail: Yes. In order to create a forum which affords full public participation and complete transparency, the merger discussion should be an active agenda item for the selectmen. With a merger recommendation from the MMA Consulting Group, the issue must now receive a full hearing from the board and the public to determine whether the merits of a merger outweigh any negative implications.

Mr. Seiman: As town history indicates, negotiations between the selectmen usually lead to the best solutions. At first glance, financial advantages to the towns are not equal. The two police departments must be involved in listing necessary services between seasons, detailed description of staffing and other expenses. Non-monetary trade-offs should be considered, including night, weekend, and holiday coverage, as well as vacation days. Short-term trials for such changes should lead to better decisions.

Correction, April 7

In the print edition of this article a paragraph Abe Seiman provided in answer to a question about the town’s budget crisis was mistakenly placed in the answer Mr. Vail provided .

Mr. Seiman provided the following paragraph, “Towns will need to switch their competing philosophies to overall goals for the benefit of the entire Island.”