West Tisbury selectmen debate wisdom of roundabout lawsuit

— File photo by Mae Deary

West Tisbury selectmen met on Wednesday, January 25 and discussed their decision to drop their lawsuit appealing the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) approval of the roundabout project at the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs.

On January 23, West Tisbury and Edgartown selectmen unanimously agreed to drop their joint lawsuit against the MVC following a conference call with attorneys from the Boston based law firm of Goulston & Storrs.

What the town officials learned from their lawyers at Goulston & Storrs, at a shared cost of approximately $34,000, is that regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation could move ahead with plans to construct a roundabout.

With West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell absent, selectmen Richard Knabel and chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter expressed very different opinions about the wisdom of the lawsuit.

Mr. Manter questioned whether selectmen should have pursued the lawsuit in the first place. He cited the high cost of the legal fees. Although he voted on November 15 in favor of filing a lawsuit, he said he regretted that decision.

“I am speaking for myself and not the board, and I am saying it may not be the best decision this board ever made,” Mr. Manter said.

Mr. Manter said selectmen should have taken more time to consider whether to pursue the lawsuit. The town should have done more research, gathered legal opinions and reached out to the other four towns to see what other Island leaders thought about a legal challenge to the MVC.

“There was no real need for West Tisbury to rush into it,” he said. “Time was on our side. Hindsight is a wonderful think, but it’s there. I don’t think we got . . . public input, I think we just made the decision rather quickly without thinking it all the way through.”

The legal bills for pursuing the lawsuit over the past two months have put a major dent in the town’s legal fund. Town administrator Jen Rand Wednesday said the town legal fund will drop below $4,000 after the most recent legal fees for the roundabout are paid. As a result, selectmen agreed to ask the finance committee to appropriate $18,000 to replenish the legal fund until the town meeting in April.

Mr. Manter said the lawsuit had already cost too much. “I was really uncomfortable going forward with this without getting an appropriation to pay for this. We depleted our legal line item to an almost dangerous level, almost forcing the town and finance committee to approve this expenditure. I don’t think this is the right way to do business,” he said.

He added, “I think I let some people down and I will be more careful in the future.”

Selectman Richard Knabel, who spearheaded the effort to mount a legal challenge, defended the board’s decision to join the lawsuit. He said efforts were made to involve other towns, and selectmen did not have enough time to appropriate money for the lawsuit.

“We certainly couldn’t have spent the time to get an appropriation to pay for it within the time we had to move,” he said. “The circumstances required that a judgment be made and a decision be made. We did it.”

Mr. Knabel criticized the MVC for ignoring the wide-spread opposition to the roundabout project. “I just don’t think they handled it properly given that the commission itself was so dramatically split,” he said.

Mr. Knabel outlined the benefits of taking action.

“I thought one of the benefits of going forward with a lawsuit or an appeal – and the only thing you do under the legislation is appeal to the courts – is that they would have understood there was a deep concern and considerable opposition to what they had done and they might want to reflect on that or reconsider what they were doing.”

“Evidently they took the opposite tack and decided they had to defend themselves regardless of what it costs. Have we learned something? I suppose we have. But I am not sorry we proceeded as we did,” he concluded.