In the mid-1970s, an early counsel to the newly created Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) used the compound “quasi-judicial” as he described for commission members, in general terms, the way in which they should conduct their business. He intended to make clear the seriousness of their work.
The original legislation, in 1974, and its succeeding, amended version require hearings and appropriate notice for consideration by the commission of developments of regional impact, and the legislation describes the findings that must accompany decisions made by the commission on developments or designations of areas of critical planning concern. It sets out time limits for the commission to make certain decisions, and it requires carefully constructed written decisions.
In this general, legislatively required scheme, there is no real sense that the MVC is acting as a court, a judge, or a jury. Courts and judges function in ways consistent with laws that prescribe behavior in great detail. The lawyers that function in the true, as opposed to quasi-judicial, context are officers of the court itself.
Martha’s Vineyard Commission members are lay elected and appointed politicians whose roles as planners and regulators are prescribed in only the loosest terms by the enabling legislation and today by the elaborated provisions of the Open Meeting Law (OML) and due process rules. That’s why some of the decisions they make seem ad hoc and whimsical, even though the process they follow in coming to planning and development conclusions may be correct according to the OML.
Together, the Open Meeting Law, welcome as it is, and the lay interpretations of it can try the patience of ordinary folk. And, they do. In the matter of the roundabout, the MVC has made its decision. If it is unmade by an MVC vote this week, fresh consideration, with all the attendant observation of hearing testimony protocols, proper notice, and decision making free from conspiracy among commissioners, will be invoked once more.
Meantime, Mark London’s roundabout-related email to commission members last week warning them, as one might warn a child, to avoid falling in with bad characters, is discouraging, particularly these portions: ” … Ex-parte communications regarding this issue are still prohibited … If you are approached by a member of the public or an elected official, you should politely but firmly refuse to engage in conversation about the matter … Also, you should avoid reading additional materials about this issue, including commentary in local newspapers.”
Commission members are not judges, they are not lawyers or other officers of the court, and they are certainly not jurors under the control of the court. They are politicians and neighbors, to whom great authority and wide discretion has been granted under law and by their election and appointment, all to serve the interests of their constituents, even when constituents catch up with them among the frozen foods or the deli meats.
Roundabout around again
On a related note, this page has criticized the deliberations over the roundabout chiefly for two reasons.
First, the process has been badly flawed, in that it ought to have been a development of regional impact before the MVC from the first, which was almost 10 years ago. The MVC involvement in the development of the roundabout idea over that period and failure of the regional agency and the Oak Bluffs selectmen to recognize the regional nature of the project is a black mark on each.
The other criticism has been that, while it is reasonable to assume the roundabout will be a safe structure through which to flow traffic, it has not been developed to safeguard the bike path users who will now cross a constant stream of cars and trucks in the roundabout and approaching it. Oh, and by the way, planning for bus travelers was inadequate.
Both of these issues were addressed by the MVC’s 7-6 decision to approve the roundabout plan. More extensive provisions for bus passenger safety will be included, and the redirection of the bike path away from the intersection and the requirement that pedestrian-operated stop lights must be installed. Safety of the plan will be improved, though safety at the Blinker intersection had never been a significant concern for anyone using the intersection, but that the roundabout plan made it so.