Informal peace talks held between Aquinnah selectmen and assessors

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Town administrator and former Aquinnah assessor Jeffery Madison and selectman chairman Jim Newman represented the selectmen Tuesday night at an informal meeting with the board of assessors. Selectmen Juli Vanderhoop and Gary Haley weren't in attendance. —Rich Saltzberg

Aquinnah selectmen and assessors held an informal meeting Tuesday night geared toward achieving detente in the fraught relationship between the two boards.

Selectmen Juli Vanderhoop and Gary Haley, two-thirds of the board of selectmen, were absent. Chairman Jim Newman and town administrator Jeffrey Madison represented the selectmen, while assessors chairman Elise LeBovit, board member Adam Wilson, and the town’s paid, professional assessor Angela Cywinski represented the assessors.

Mr. Newman made clear early on that projection of a positive image was the theme of the evening. The boards also met Sept. 12 and got bogged down by animosity between members, and there were moments Tuesday when positivity took a backseat during exchanges between Mr. Madison, Ms. LeBovit, and Ms. Cywinski over the assessor’s scope of duty. Mr. Madison argued that ventures into anything beyond the board’s estimations of fair share tax payments for real estate and personal property was a breach of its mandate. Ms. LeBovit’s suggestion of periodic financial planning meetings to analyze hypothetical tax scenarios and their financial ramifications, such as variables stemming from the 2016 Decoulos decision, struck Mr. Madison as meritless.

“It’s a useless waste of time, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

Ms. Cywinski argued that it’s the assessors’ job to inform the town about fluctuations in tax revenue, that it’s “all-encompassing” work.

“The job has changed since you’ve done it,” she said to Mr. Madison, a past Aquinnah assessor, “You know right now you are working for the selectmen and it has been a long time since you’ve been in the assessors’ world.”

Mr. Madison took the comment as a personal criticism and asked Ms. Cywinski to refrain from leveling more.

“Don’t single me out,” he said.

At another point in the meeting, Ms. Cywinski said that the town could have avoided a Proposition 2½ override on the warrant this past spring based on the Decoulos judgement, but she offered little insight into the “windfall” revenue mechanics at play in what, by most appearances, was devaluation of land.

Largely quiet during the meeting, Mr. Wilson perked up at Ms. Cywinski’s revenue notion.

“I think that’s pretty farfetched,” he said.

Ms. LeBovit contended that the board of assessors would benefit from “direct access” to legal counsel for advice and for other matters.

“That’s insane,” Mr. Newman said.

Mr. Newman later said that funds the assessors wanted for legal services after forensic accounting came their way constituted a prelude to discord that is not supposed to happen between town offices.

“You talk about it, you work it out, you don’t ask for money from the selectmen so you can turn around and sue the selectmen,” he said.

He did not elaborate on who asked for money, or whether a suit was filed.

“That had nothing to do with our board,” Ms LeBovit said over the telephone after the meeting. “That’s between Angela and the selectmen.”

Aquinnah assessors board chairman Elise LeBovit engages with town administrator Jeffery Madison and selectmen chairmen Jim Newman at an informal joint meeting on Tuesday meant to air out the sulfurous relationship the two boards have long had.

She added that forensic accounting referred to when Jeffrey Madison removed the computer from Ms. Cywinski’s office and later emailed that it was taken for an audit authorized by town counsel.

For legal advice not related to issues within town hall, Mr. Newman revised his position a bit and said the board of assessors need only get permission from the selectmen to access town counsel.

Another issue Ms. LeBovit brought forth was the distraction Ms. Cywinski faced on Fridays in town hall when nobody else is around to field the needs of folks who drop in.

“It’s not fair for the assessor to come in on Fridays and be the only one in the building . . . she can’t do her job because she’s constantly being interrupted by people who want to do things at town hall,” Mr. Wilson said.

Mr. Madison agreed and said he would look into reconfiguring his 32-hour work week to include a Friday schedule.

Because of lost time this week from Columbus Day and an off-Island training, Ms. LeBovit inquired if Ms. Cywinski could work six hours on Saturday to catch up.

“These are extra hours,” Mr. Newman noted.

Ms. LeBovit said it would be volunteer work.

A consensus of the selectmen would be needed, Mr. Newman said.

The two boards wrapped up after about an hour, with the understanding that they would continue their dialog. Whether another meeting would be held wasn’t discussed.