Aquinnah voters back budget, lighthouse, reject marijuana bylaw

Town clerk Carolyn Feltz (left) moderator Michael Hebert, town counsel Ron Rappaport, selectman Spencer Booker, and selectman Beverly Wright present town meeting articles to Aquinnah voters. — Photo by Steve Myrick

In the last of the Island’s round of annual town meetings, on Tuesday night Aquinnah voters approved without dissent a $3.8 million operating budget for the next fiscal year, up 12 percent over the current year. They also approved all but one article.

The most extended discussion of the night came at the very end of the meeting, when voters refused to prohibit public consumption of marijuana in the Island’s smallest town.

Voters willingly approved a total of $75,400 to fund the first steps in moving the Gay Head lighthouse, now threatened by coastal erosion.

About 45 people, or 12.2 percent of the town’s 369 registered voters, participated in the town meetings. Voters first took action on an 11-article special town meeting then turned their attention to the 30-article annual.

On Wednesday, voters went to the polls to elect town officers and take action on one ballot question, a $230,000 Proposition 2.5 override. There were no electoral contests.

Tuesday night, town officials explained that the budget increase was due mostly to increased education assessments, as more Aquinnah children enter the school system.

“Yours is up 34.5 percent, which is a big number,” superintendent of schools James Weiss told voters. “The number of students is going from 23 to 30.”

The budget also includes a 2.5 percent cost of living salary adjustment for town employees. Voters approved the budget by unanimous voice vote.

Medical marijuana

The only article rejected was the last one to be considered by voters, a measure to ban public consumption of marijuana. The measure would have banned marijuana use on streets, town buildings, beaches, and any other public place. Infractions would be punishable by a $300 fine.

“Whatever your position is with medical marijuana, that ‘s fine,” Police Chief Rhandi Belain told voters. “We don’t want anybody in public consuming marijuana.”

Voters were eager to oppose the measure.

“We’re trying to pass a law that’s stronger than the state law,” voter Jim Wallen said. “You already have no smoking on buses and schools. There’s a civil liberties issue here. We have enough infringements on our civil liberties.”

Voters defeated the article with a clear majority on a voice vote.

Toward the light

Several articles in support of relocating the Gay Head Lighthouse away from the face of the eroding cliff won voter approval. They appropriated $10,000 for promotional material to raise funds for moving the historic light to safer ground.

“This funding would help us get rolling with marketing and public relations, so the initial donations that come in can go 100 percent toward the lighthouse,” said Meg Bodnar, a member of the committee advising selectmen on the possible purchase and relocation of the historic lighthouse.

Voters also approved $25,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for emergency restoration and repairs, money that could be used for moving the lighthouse if necessary, according to light keeper Richard Skidmore.

Voters also approved $30,000 for engineering and design to prepare for eventual relocation. Geo-technical engineers will drill test borings at three locations, to see which might be suitable to relocate the lighthouse.

Several voters questioned why the town is responsible for preserving the historic structure, if it is still classified by the U.S. Coast Guard as an active aid to navigation.

“The government and the Coast Guard rely on this,” one voter said. “I don’t know why it becomes our responsibility.”

Mr. Skidmore said the town is moving to preserve the lighthouse, because the federal government may opt for an alternative that will be neither historic, nor picturesque.

“The Coast Guard could put up a pole with a light on it, if that’s what we want,” Mr. Skidmore said.

Voters also approved $5,400 in CPA funds for video documentation of photographs and artifacts related to the lighthouse, and $5,000 for an engineering study of the eroding cliffs.

Other action

With little or no dissent, voters also quickly approved $44,945 to refurbish and upgrade a fire truck; $14,000 for unbudgeted legal fees; $1,200 to create a temporary dog pound. Those expenditures were voted in a special town meeting preceding the annual town meeting, and will come from the current year budget.

In the annual town meeting, they voted $50,000 toward unfunded health benefits for future retirees; $39,000 for the town’s share of a new ambulance; and $34,500 for a new police vehicle.

Voters approved $1,903 to fund Aquinnah’s proportional share of the Dukes County integrated pest management program, and $7,928 for the county’s health care access services.