Town planner nixed in Oak Bluffs

Town administrator’s attempt to add aptitude to town hall falls just short.

Selectman Gail Barmakian cast the one dissenting vote from the board. —Barry Stringfellow

Seeking to accelerate progress in affordable housing, the creation of a new town master plan, and to add expertise to the myriad decisions that face the planning board, town administrator Robert Whritenour presented Oak Bluffs selectmen, members of the planning board and the affordable housing committee, with a proposal to create a position for a full-time town planner at Tuesday night’s selectmen’s meeting.

Mr. Whritenour proposed adding to the planning board assistant $38,400 salary — former assistant MacGregor Anderson is now in the town assessor’s office — with roughly $37,000 from the $923,000 in the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Trust, to create a $75,000 salary for a full-time town planner.

“I honestly think we should consider bringing to bear more complex analytical problem-solving skills, more in the line of a town planner, to assist the town in moving forward,” Mr. Whritenour said. “Frankly, I think upgrading to those skills can help us leverage more value for the town and its residents.”

Mr. Whritenour said the $100,000 approved by voters for a new master plan is probably not adequate to do the job properly.

Selectman and former planning board chairman Brian Packish agreed.

“A lot of towns that hire consultants to do that work routinely spend over $300,000,” Mr. Whritenour said. “I think if you have a person in town hall who can coordinate these tasks, you could really help avoid that trap of reliance on outside consultants. If we just go the route of administrative assistant, we’re going to be undermanned for this job.”

Mr. Whritenour said a town planner could help guide the town in making the most of the newly created Housing Production Plan (HPP), which selectmen, planning board members, and affordable housing members all agreed earlier in the meeting was useful, but set unrealistic goals.

“I know a lot of the [$923,000] is earmarked for specific tasks, but there is significantly adequate funds in the trust available to support this effort,” Mr. Whritenour said.

Addressing concerns about funding the position, Mr. Whritenour said the affordable housing trust fund was a stopgap measure, and after this year, the town planner salary would be voted on at town meeting. He said town counsel had consulted with the Department of Revenue, and it had approved the allocation from the trust.

“I think a full-time town planner will jumpstart the horsepower of all of our committees,” he said.

Mr. Packish, selectman Greg Coogan, selectman Mike Santoro and chairman Kathy Burton endorsed the proposal.

Selectman Gail Barmakian did not.

“I don’t think it’s the right direction to go right now,” she said. “You’re adding another layer, which is unnecessary. If we’re talking about a permanent position, it should go before the personnel board, FinCom, and town meeting. We’re moving a little too fast.”

“I don’t think we can move fast enough,” Mr. Santoro countered.

Finance committee members Jason Balboni and Maura McGroarty agreed with Ms. Barmakian.

“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s the way it should be done,” Ms. McGroarty said.

“Increasing the assistant salary to $38,000 was already a stretch this year,” Mr. Balboni said. “This hasn’t gone before the personnel board. There’s no job description. This is backwards to me. How about a facilities manager for all the town buildings that are falling down as soon as they’re built?”

“To me, I see exponential value in this,” Mr. Packish said. “I believe this is healthy for the town and fiscally responsible.”

“We have over $900,000 just sitting there,” Mr. Whritenour said. “We could do something very positive for the town.”

The Affordable Housing Trust — selectmen and members of the affordable housing committee — voted on the proposal.

Selectmen voted  4-1 in favor, and affordable housing committee members Peter Bradford, Will Craffey, and Jim Bishop voted against, making the vote 4-4.

The town will now look to hire an administrative assistant for the planning board.