Editorial: In Oak Bluffs, root for orderly financial management

On April 17, this page complimented Oak Bluffs on a job well done.

“How did Oak Bluffs get its spending habits and realistic revenue projections in balance?” the Editorial asked, and then explained. “It was an exercise in thoughtfulness and discipline. The town’s refreshed financial leadership, including citizen committees, department heads, finance committee members, the selectmen, and particularly the professional leadership of town administrator Bob Whritenour got the job done.

“Consequently, Oak Bluffs voters … faced a brighter picture than they’ve seen for several years, so they approved a $25.5 million operating budget for the next fiscal year that included modest proposals to restore recreation programs and a limited number of lifeguards on town beaches.

“And, as Mr. Whritenour told them, the fresh and conservative revenue projections, plus a tight budget, will at last erase the town’s $600,000 free cash deficit and put the town in the black for the first time in four years.”

Now, it turns out, the Editorial writer may have been modestly optimistic about the improved financial management and the effectiveness of oversight controls.

The Times reported on July 11 that $27,000 in repairs to the town’s fire/rescue craft were shepherded through the town’s budget and bidding systems — or, rather, were ignored — by longtime emergency management coordinator Peter Martell, with little or no leadership or financial oversight at all. Although the current leadership regime in Oak Bluffs, including especially Mr. Whritenour, did not preside over this departure from responsible practice, the tendency for freelancing in town fiscal affairs has been a common feature historically, and the possibility of regression lurks always.

Mr. Martell is well known to voters for, among many reasons, resisting until very recently signals from town leaders that they would have the town join the Island’s efforts to coordinate regionally all disaster and emergency planning and execution. Only a direct and unambiguous order compelled Mr. Martell ultimately to modify his stance, despite repeated examples of how, during storm emergencies, the lack of such coordinated action confused townspeople and Islanders generally and tarnished the town’s reputation.

This week, Mr. Martell, defensive about his solitary decision-making on the boat repair, made it clear that he had merely taken the correct and necessary steps.

Walter Vail, chairman of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, as Times writer Barry Stringfellow reports, explained that Mr. Martell ordered the repairs without competitive bidding, as required by state procurement laws and without the knowledge of the selectmen or town finance officials.

“Peter Martell takes full responsibility,” Mr. Vail said. “He’s not going to do that again.”

Well, perhaps not.

But, Mr. Martell told the reporter, that if the boat needs work again, “and I need to get it fixed, I’m going to get it fixed.”

Doesn’t sound like fluid and cooperative municipal decision-making on spending, does it?

Which, the shrewd professional that he is, Mr. Whritenour recognized right away.

Not so fast, Mr. Whritenour said.

“I would require,” the town manager declared, in an email to The Times, “that three quotes be procured for this level of work, whether emergency or non-emergency. If a qualified marine metal fabricator responds that they are unable to perform the work, that counts as a quote. In the future, if it becomes necessary to make a sole-source procurement, the reason for the sole-source will first be certified in writing by the chief procurement officer, which is me.”

This page is rooting, albeit nervously, for Mr. Whritenour who, with the support of the selectmen, has rationalized the goo of Oak Bluffs budgeting and politics, as it has often been conducted over the years. Obviously, considering that this week the selectmen reappointed Mr. Martell to his emergency management position, to serve till year-end, the town administrator and the selectmen have more to do.