MVC member’s off the cuff remark to chairman sparks controversy

Updated 12:05 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

An open mike has tripped up U.S. presidents and politicians. Ronald Reagan learned that lesson when he made a quip about bombing the Soviet Union in front of a supposedly dead mike. On Thursday, an open mike added to the controversy surrounding a proposed bowling alley in Oak Bluffs under review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Martha’s VIneyard Commission (MVC) chairman Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs had just gaveled the public hearing on Sam Dunn’s proposed bowling alley/entertainment center closed. He announced a brief five-minute recess prior to the MVC taking up its next agenda item.

Linda Sibley of West Tisbury, the longest serving MVC member and DRI hearing chairman, in an aside to Mr. Hancock, leaned over and said, “I would have dragged his life out so we could beat on him a little longer.”

Her comment was picked up by MVTV microphones just before the recording stopped for the recess.

In an email sent Saturday morning to Oak Bluffs Association (OBA) members, OBA executive director Christine Todd alerted the recipients to the comments overheard on the MVTV tape of the MVC meeting. “I would like you all to PLEASE take some time to view this for yourselves,” Ms. Todd said. “It is at the 112 minute 55 second marker into the hearing if you do not wish to view the entire hearing.”

On Sunday, a person identified by the name “IloveOB,” added a comment under a news account of last Thursday’s hearing titled, “MVC still not bowled over.” IloveOB wrote, “Absolutely repulsive behavior, I guess someone at the MVC forgot that they left the microphone on.” The commenter provided a link to a YouTube video of Ms. Sibley’s remark. The video clip fueled more comments critical of the MVC’s handling of the project.

Reactions varied

On Monday, Ms. Todd told The Times. “I hope it’s addressed in a professional manner. I’m curious to see how this will be addressed.”

“If she said those things, it would make me question the decision making by the MVC because they are a board that is supposed to be helping and protecting the Vineyard,” said Doug Abdelnour, owner of Nancy’s restaurant and a member of the Oak Bluffs Association.

Sam Dunn was nonplussed. “I doubt she meant anything by it because I have always found her to be fair and objective,” he wrote in an email after viewing the clip on YouTube.

Mr. Hancock, the commissioner on the receiving end of Ms. Sibley’s comment, thought nothing of it. “I think what she was referring to were some of the landscaping issues,” Mr. Hancock told The Times in a telephone call Monday. “In my mind it didn’t refer to the project as a whole.”

Just kidding

“It was a joke,” Ms. Sibley said in a telephone interview with the Times Monday. “I realize that you might need a lot of context to understand the joke. Sam has been in front of the MVC a lot in the last five years for his other projects, all of which have gone on for ever and ever and ever. So basically I was surprised and somewhat amused at how quickly the public hearing process has gone. It didn’t go on for months and months. It was pretty cut and dried. I thought it was funny.”

Ms. Sibley said she would have made this joke to Mr. Dunn’s face, ‘We wanted to keep you around longer to beat on you a little Sam’ and I think he would have laughed,” she said.

Ms. Sibley said she regrets that “this has been taken so far out of context. I’m not apologizing for it because it was a joke and I really think Sam would have gotten it.”

Ms. Sibley expressed surprise that the project has garnered so much public attention. “I find it a little amusing that there’s so much froth over this project,” she said. “I don’t think anybody on the commission has stated an opinion on the project.”

She said there is nothing unusual in the MVC treatment of this project. “As an organization it’s our job to clarify and prod a little bit,” she said.

Not fair game

Cable operators are required by law to provide public, educational and government (PEG) programming. On Martha’s Vineyard, Comcast provides PEG access through MVTV, a nonprofit corporation, funded by Comcast through agreements with the six Island towns.

Following the completion of a new franchise agreement signed between the towns and Comcast, last June MVTV moved into a new 4,000-square-foot building with state-of-the-art equipment off Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road.

MVTV films most board of selectmen meetings, MVC public hearings and town meetings, in addition to other important government meetings. Meetings air on one of the three Comcast PEG channels and may also be viewed on the MVTV website, a convenience for non-cable subscribers.

Ms. Todd provided a link to the MVTV website. Sunday evening the MVC meeting was available for view. Monday morning it had disappeared.

An MVTV staff member reached Monday morning told The Times that at the instruction of Stephen Warriner, MVTV executive director, the recording was removed from the website so that Ms. Sibley’s off-hand comment could be edited out.

In an email to The Times, Mr. Warriner said MVTV policy with regard to government coverage is gavel to gavel. “Comments picked up by our microphones before or after gavel in/out are not to be aired,” Mr. Warriner said. “This includes breaks if they are gaveled out.”

Mr. Warriner said that anything that occurs during the gaveled portion of the meeting is fair game for the MVTV microphones.

“In this case, MVTV made an accidental mistake,” he said. “We aired something we should not have. When I learned of it, I ordered the meeting to be taken down and edited in accordance with long-standing MVTV policy.”

As of Monday afternoon, the meeting was once again available on the MVTV website — minus the off-the-cuff remarks by Ms. Sibley.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Linda Sibley is the MVC chairman. Fred Hancock of Oak Bluffs is MVC chairman. Ms. Sibley, chairman of the land use planning committee, chaired the DRI public hearing portion of the meeting.