Oak Bluffs emergency management director rebuffed in renewal bid
Photo by Barry Stringfellow
Oak Bluffs selectman Greg Coogan proposed Tuesday that Peter Martell, the town's longtime head of emergency management, be re-appointed, but only through the summer, not for the full three-year term he wanted. Mr. Coogan also recommended to his colleagues at their weekly meeting that they choose a successor for Mr. Martell. Mr. Coogan expressed concern that although Oak Bluffs Police Sergeant Steve Conley was appointed assistant emergency management director, his participation has been minimal to date.
After a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion with Mr. Martell, the board voted unanimously to keep him on through the end of the year and resolved to begin work with Sergeant Conley, or another suitable replacement, as soon as possible.
In a telephone call on Wednesday, Mr. Martell said, "I'm a little disappointed. I would have preferred to stay until June at least. It's going to be hard to take 37 years of experience and stuff it in a guy's head in six months."
The discussion began on an upbeat note. Chairman Walter Vail announced that Mr. Martell had taken the necessary steps to make Oak Bluffs part of the Martha's Vineyard Regional Emergency Planning Committee — a condition of his re–appointment that was established in a previous meeting.
Mr. Coogan quickly shifted the tone. Inquiring about a long-simmering conflict between the fire department and Mr. Martell, he asked, "Has your meeting with [Acting Fire Chief] John Rose taken place to hash out the details about the location of the MCI [Mass Casualty Incident] trailer?"
"That trailer doesn't belong to the town of Oak Bluffs," Mr. Martell said. "It is under my custody under a signed agreement with Massachusetts Department of Public Health." Mr. Martell stated that his actions were governed by the National Emergency Management Association, not by local officials, and that he'd move the trailer to his yard before moving it to the Oak Bluffs fire station, as Mr. Rose has requested.
"Everything is running fine, I don't know why we're even discussing this," Mr. Martell said.
Proceedings become contentious
Over the next 30 minutes, it was apparent that the two sides had very different ideas about what is best for the safety of the people of Oak Bluffs. It was also clear that the selectmen (with the possible exception of Mr. Vail) were to some degree frustrated with Mr. Martell's historic lack of cooperation with them and other public officials.
"The last time you were here I asked you if you would sit in a room with John Rose and the chief of police and the chairman of the board of selectmen, and hash out these details. That did not happen," Mr. Coogan said sternly.
Mr. Martell said he misunderstood the request, and offered to take it up at a scheduled meeting on Wednesday morning.
Mr. Coogan was not mollified. "I've heard this for years, it goes on and on," he said. "I'd like it cleaned up now, done."
"I know you're incredibly devoted and I appreciate all you've done and I know how much you care," selectman Kathy Burton said to a deflated Mr. Martell. "But with global warming and all of the terrible storms and all of our issues, we need to revisit the organization. We had numerous discussions about when you were going to retire. We appointed an assistant and he got a big stipend — where's the training?"
"Steve is the sergeant of police," said Mr. Martell. "They're shorthanded. He doesn't have the time right now to take over, so I take care of things. It's not going as fast as I'd like because everyone's been so busy. I've been working 25 hours a week on this stuff, between Illumination and the fireworks, everybody's busy as hell."
Seeking to strike a conciliatory tone, Mr. Vail proposed to extend Mr. Martell until the end of June, 2014.
Response from the board was tepid.
No-bid boat repairs resurface
"The repairs to the rescue boat has been a major issue," said selectman Mike Santoro, referring to the $27,000 no-bid repairs to the police and fire rescue boat that Mr. Martell ordered in 2011. "I have to ask you, if this came up again, would you do the same thing?"
"It depends on the situation," said Mr. Martell, citing that his actions were justified under "sole source vendor" criteria and that former Town Administrator Michael Dutton was aware of his actions.
"We've gone through a lot in terms of procurement in this town," said visibly piqued Town Administrator Robert Whritenour. "This particular instance is our poster child of how not to do it. There's no exemption from procurement laws because of emergency or public safety. We could have complied with the laws, it wouldn't have been that difficult. The bigger issue is there was no source of funds at that time and we can't spend money we don't have. There's no sense revisiting this and trying to make it look like it was proper. It wasn't. We will not see any sole source exemptions going forward unless it's certified in writing."
Modifying his earlier stance, Mr. Coogan suggested that the selectmen appoint Mr. Martell through the end of the year, to ensure the town is covered through hurricane season.
"I'd like to stay until the end of June, then I'll retire," said Mr. Martell.
"That's what you said two years ago," said Ms. Burton. "I just echo Greg's remarks that we want to see a more unified department."
"I've been doing this 37 years and nobody's died on my watch and I'm very proud of that," said Mr. Martell.
"If Peter's trying, in his own inimitable way, to be a more cooperative person and provide support with the fire department, I suggest he stay at least until the end of the year," countered Mr. Vail.
In the end, board voted unanimously to extend Mr. Martell's tenure until the end of 2013.
In other business
After kicking the issue around for several weeks, selectmen agreed to revert to the original, 1994 definition of "downtown" — roughly Circuit Avenue and Kennebec Avenue — when applying the downtown summer construction policy that limits the type of work that may be done.
Selectmen agreed to postpone a final vote on food trucks in the downtown area until more options are discussed and selectman Gail Barmakian is in attendance. The issue came to a head when Oak Bluffs businessman Bill Coggins asked the board to allow him to rent space to Irie Bites, a food truck that has operated in Vineyard Haven for the past two years.
Selectmen also agreed that the artwork on Scott Dario's "Martha's Vineyard Sightseeing" buses has been sufficiently toned down. The initial design featured brightly colored Island-themed designs that included caricatures of swimsuit-clad women and muscle-bound men, beach parties, a biplane, and an enormous shark rising out of the water just off a beach.
Selectmen also agreed to change the summer taxpayers meeting from August 13 to August 6.