This past Saturday morning, West Tisbury residents and voters collected in the community room of the West Tisbury Public Library to learn about “What Makes West Tisbury Tick?” Co-sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard League of Women Voters, the event was created to demystify the mechanics and trappings of town government, and encourage more people to get involved in the direct democracy that characterizes small-town New England politics. The event had a friendly, welcoming air, and covered many topics.
Town moderator Dan Waters began the morning by welcoming the full house, about 80 people. “Think of all those times at town meeting when you find yourself scratching your head, asking, ‘Seriously?’ but never stood up to ask that question,” he said. “Today is your chance to do that without feeling embarrassed. We hope that you’ll be inspired by the end of the day to join a committee, run for office, start some local initiative … get engaged in something that you’re passionate about.”
Over the next two hours, Mr. Waters and town officials shared information and answered questions for the enthusiastic gathering. While some had to do with the technical elements of getting the annual town meeting warrant ready, a lot of time was focused on what individual residents can bring to the table.
To begin, Doug Ruskin of the financial committee (FinCom) took the crowd on an “organizational tour” of town government. While the accompanying diagram was specific to West Tisbury, he emphasized that every small town in Massachusetts has an almost identical structure. “I’m from New York, and it ain’t the same there,” he said. “I was astounded at my first town meeting to see the police chief explaining why he needed a new car.”
Every role in town governance is either elected or appointed. Elected officials are directly accountable to the voters. Such individuals and committees include the boards of selectmen, assessors, planning, and finance, as well as the town clerk and town moderator.
The rest of the positions — including full-time salaried personnel such as police officers — are appointed by the relevant board and then approved by the selectmen. There are 120 appointed positions. “That’s pretty much it,” said Mr. Ruskin. “Not complicated, just a lot of positions.”
There was discussion about how the warrant for town meeting was
established. In brief, there are two channels for a resident to get an article on the ballot: via a citizen’s petition, requiring 10 legible voters’ signatures, which can be presented to Tara Whiting, the town clerk, who certifies the names and then gives the petition to town administrator Jennifer Rand.
Alternatively, a resident can go directly to the selectmen with a request. The warrant closes on the first Tuesday in February, so as this goes to press, it is no longer possible to add anything to the warrant for this year’s town meeting. However, it is not too late to run for office.
Mr. Waters introduced town clerk Tara Whiting as “the gateway person for running for office.” Anyone who wants to run for office need only turn in a petition with the signatures of 20 voters by Feb. 23 to be listed on the ballot. (For future reference, the homiest way to do this is to show up at Cynthia Riggs’ annual Groundhog Day party on Feb. 2, which kicks off the WT political season.)
Assuming you run a winning campaign — which isn’t too difficult, since the vast majority of candidates run unopposed — Ms. Whiting swears you in to office, and you swear to obey open meeting and public records law. The amount of transparency is impressive, and puts a lot of accountability on the part of people who volunteer to be on committees and task forces. Depending on the committee, expect to spend approximately two to three hours per week on town business.
If you’re more interested in a particular appointed position, communicate your interest to town administrator Jennifer Rand by email at email@example.com, in person, or by a note; she will let the selectmen know shortly thereafter, “and we act very promptly,” selectman Richard Knabel said.
Members of various standing boards also added to the conversation. Julius Lowe spoke of accepting a role on the zoning board of appeals “as a lark,” but as he dug deeper, he came to realize the value of deep community involvement. “It really is just a bunch of your neighbors, and everybody brings something to the table. Being involved is invaluable, in my opinion.” Similar passion was expressed by all, and at least two residents of other towns — Tristan Israel of Tisbury and Brian Packish of Oak Bluffs — came up-Island just to impress upon the West Tisburians how meaningful and rewarding civic involvement is. “You get the Island that you work for by showing up,” said Ginny Jones, 30-year veteran of the West Tisbury planning board.
All the speakers encouraged everyone to attend public meetings. Ms. Whiting pointed out that all FinCom and selectmen’s meetings are taped and aired on MVTV, so there are plenty of opportunities for people to get educated and informed. Transparency being extremely important, all meetings are always posted publicly, as legal notices in the back of the paper, and generally on the website.
Ms. Jones added, “It’s frustrating to get to town meeting and have people ask questions that could have been answered in process. We’re having a public hearing on certain amendments shortly. It will be posted, so please come and ask questions then, and not when we reach the meeting floor. Thank you.”
The can-do attitude of the attendees became manifest after somebody asked if the town ever provided childcare during town meeting. The simple answer was no — but, it was pointed out, that was exactly the sort of thing that could be brought as a citizen’s petition, which would only require 10 signatures, provided it was turned in before the close of business on Tuesday (Feb 7). As the meeting continued, Paddy Moore and Beth Kramer, from their seats, began to circulate a petition that quickly exceeded 10 names. Ms. Whiting pointed out that state regulations forbade such activity inside a municipal building, and the petitioners agreed to sign a new petition outside on the porch when the meeting was over.
It is now an article on the warrant for this year’s town meeting.
Postscript: The League of Women Voters will hold a candidates’ forum on Wednesday, March 22, at the Howes House. If there are no contested races, this event will be canceled. See marthasvineyard.ma.lwvnet.org for information.