Oak Bluffs approves special election for town hall

Selectmen at odds over the future of the project.

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The town hall project saga continued Tuesday as Oak Bluffs selectmen proposed a special town election. — Brian Dowd

The plans to build a new town hall in Oak Bluffs once again had town selectmen at odds — this time over a special election.

At the board’s regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, selectmen discussed holding a special election on Nov. 15, two days after the special town meeting, to determine if an additional $1.3 million should be approved for the town hall project.

At their previous meeting, selectmen were presented with different options on how to move forward with a town hall project that came in $1.3 million over budget after a second round of bids. Town hall building committee chairman Bill McGrath recommended an article on the special town meeting warrant that would ask for the $1.3 million. If voters approve it, the town could then secure a bid and not stall construction.

On Oct. 2, Selectman Gail Barmakian called a special emergency meeting to have selectmen consider if they wanted the $1.3 million article to be on the state ballot. Selectmen decided to not place the article on the state ballot, and offer voters a special election instead. A special election will cost the town between $1,000 to $1,500.

Selectman Mike Santoro raised an issue with the special election because of its potential to run into the same problem discussed at their last meeting — not enough voters showing up. “A lot of people come after the town meeting to vote because it’s an election day, you’re voting on town officials, that brings a lot more people out. I don’t see that happening for this,” Santoro said.

Selectman Brian Packish, who was vocal about his disappointment with the current state of the project, said he could support a special election ballot which would add a level of “transparency” and “opportunity for people to participate” which has been absent. Packish highlighted that $1.7 million was taken out of the design plans with little to no public involvement.

Santoro said the building committee had been “more than transparent” about the town hall project.

“That’s subjective,” Packish said.

“That’s an unusual thing for us to hold an election two days after special town meeting. In my whatever number of years I’ve been here, we’ve never done that. I think it’s an unusual situation that will be complicated at best for people to come to that ballot question,” selectman Greg Coogan said.

Coogan added that the town “blew it” 26 years ago when it gave up a building for a possible new town hall.

Selectman Jason Balboni said it was time to get the project moving. “As far as waiting until April, I find it irresponsible to do that,” he said.

The discussion got heated when Barmakian offered her opinion.

“[Packish] had made a good point that It was absolutely crucial to have it in November soon after, to know where we stand. I would say shame on us if we’re afraid of what a ballot vote from this town has to say about how it’s going to be taxed and spend those dollars. Shame on us,” Barmakian said.

“That’s not shame. Stop it. Stop being dramatic,” Santoro said.

In addition to the $1.3 million funding article for the new town hall, several other articles will appear on the warrant: A $5.3 million funding article for repairs and renovations to the Oak Bluffs School, a $25,000 funding article for the replacement of rotted and damaged pilings at the Harbor Marina facility, a $15,200 funding article to match a grant for wastewater infrastructure, an article to return $86,000 of $100,000 that had been approved to the wastewater retained earnings, a $25,000 funding article to pay for the town’s share of an alternative system for nitrogen removal in Lagoon Pond, and an article that would allow for the Nov. 15 special election.

Despite their internal disagreement, selectmen unanimously approved the special town meeting warrant for Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs School. Selectmen then unanimously approved the special election on Thursday, Nov. 15, with polls open from 10 am to 7 pm in the Oak Bluffs Public Library meeting room.

In other business, selectmen voted to move forward with a classification and wage plan for town employees based on a study done by consultant Don Jacobs. The plan will now go to town employees to hear their input. The study was done to better assess competitive wages for town employees.

Selectmen also approved Charles “Chuck” Fisher as the new deputy shellfish constable and Sonja Amanda Josephson as a part-time deputy.