Selectmen, fishermen air gripes, plan future in Oak Bluffs

In an informal workshop with its appointed shellfish committee, the Oak Bluffs selectmen identified six specific actions intended to repair a fractured working relationship and set priorities for the future.

Selectmen agreed to advertise, interview, and hire a new assistant shellfish constable to fill a vacant position, advertise and appoint a shellfish committee member to fill a long vacant position, further organize a volunteer program, have each board participate more in each other’s meetings, and reappoint three shellfish committee members and deputize them as assistant constables to help with enforcement of shellfish regulations.

The two groups called the special meeting to foster a free flow of information, but agreed not to take any official votes.

Much of the discussion focused on the duties and priorities of shellfish constable David Grunden.

“The way it is now, David has been put off to do other things, when he should be doing things in (Sengekontacket) pond,” Earl Peters, shellfish committee chairman, said. “First things first.”

“His job seems to have evolved too many other things except for the simple priorities of being on the water,” shellfish committee member Mark Landers said. “A lot of things were overlooked when his time is allocated to other things. He is spread pretty thin.”

In a phone conversation with The Times Wednesday, Mr. Grunden said the fall of 2009 was the last time he felt his department was fully staffed, with a full-time year-round deputy and a part-time year-round deputy. He said budget cuts have eliminated the equivalent of 48 hours per week of labor.

In this year’s town report, Mr. Grunden listed 11 services cut back with budget reductions. They include reduced patrol and enforcement, eliminated or reduced seeding of mussels, steamer clams, quahogs, and scallops, reduced water-quality monitoring and reduced time spent seeking grants.

In his January report to the shellfish committee, Mr. Grunden said from the spring of 2010 through midsummer, he worked seven days per week, a minimum of 70 hours per week.

“I foolishly tried to keep everything going and put in a ton of extra hours, uncompensated hours,” Mr. Grunden told selectmen at Tuesday’s meeting. “It seems to me in certain circles unappreciated. It’s taken a toll on me, on my family life. I’m in a situation now where I’m not going to put in those hours.”

Staff issues

Currently, Mr. Grunden has funds for a part-time deputy, but that position is vacant. Two recent candidates for the position did not work out. The third, Mike Huss of Oak Bluffs, left recently without notice, according to Mr. Grunden, after several months of work he described as disappointing. Mike Huss is the son of shellfish committee member Fred “Rick” Huss.

Last week the town placed advertisements seeking a deputy natural resources officer to work under Mr. Grunden’s supervision 24 hours per week. The deadline for applications is May 13.

“I’m way behind in getting gear ready,” Mr. Grunden said. “Hopefully I’ll have a warm body by Memorial Day.”

Selectman Walter Vail asked the shellfish committee members about their direction to Mr. Grunden. “There were certain things that weren’t getting done,” Mr. Vail said. “Did you and David discuss these things, and discuss rearranging priorities?” Mr. Vail asked.

The committee members did not specifically answer that question.

“As a committee, maybe we haven’t done as much as we should,” Mr. Landers said.

Making noise

In the time reserved for public comment at the end of the workshop, commercial fisherman Bill Alwardt aired a litany of grievances aimed at selectmen, the shellfish committee, and the shellfish constable.

“I’ve seen neglect in every part of this job,” Mr. Alwardt said. “I want some answers.” Despite several attempts by selectmen to curtail Mr. Alwardt’s often-repeated complaints, he persisted.

“This shellfish committee don’t ask enough questions. Half the time they don’t show up,” Mr. Alwardt said. “Sengekontacket should be number one, because it feeds more people in this town, it puts more shellfish on the table, and it keeps more people working.”

Mr. Vail responded. “We’ve heard you, and that’s one of the reasons this meeting is taking place,” Mr. Vail said. “We’re trying very hard to get moving on this. I think we’ve got a plan to move forward. Give us some time. Don’t yell at us. No yelling.”

Former shellfish committee chairman Donald Billings also spoke. “What you’re starting now is good,” Mr. Billings said. “The selectmen fell asleep. They didn’t listen. The shellfish committee wasn’t active.”

Clammed up

The shellfish committee has had little visibility over the past year.

The shellfish committee is scheduled to meet on the third Thursday of each month. The most recent record of meeting minutes on file at the town clerk’s office was for the October 19, 2010 meeting. Members present were Mr. Peters, Mr. Landers, and Mr. Huss, along with Mr. Grunden, and they met for 36 minutes, according to the record. The committee spent the bulk of time listening to Mr. Grunden’s reports. The only item of business noted was the approval of a commercial shellfish permit for Mr. Huss, voted by the two other members of the committee present.

Meetings scheduled and posted for November, December, January, and March were cancelled. The committee met in February, and most recently, on April 19.

On the town’s official website, there are pages for the shellfish department and the shellfish committee, but both are blank.

This reporter’s examination of the public record and the town budget reveals that commercial fishermen benefit from a resource supported mostly by taxpayers and recreational users.

In the calendar year 2010, Oak Bluffs issued 577 recreational shellfish permits. Residents pay $35 per year for a recreational or “family” permit. Of the revenue raised by recreational permits, 75 percent is returned to the shellfish department. The town issued 14 commercial licenses, which cost $300 each.

In the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the shellfish department budget calls for $146,899 in spending from taxpayer appropriations. That does not include various federal, state, and private grants. It does not include $500,000 borrowed to dredge Sengekontacket Pond, a project intended to improve water quality so the popular pond can be reopened to shellfishing in summer months.