The late-January blizzard brought Islanders misery in enlarged if not wholly unexpected ways. Another major storm, extending this past weekend through Monday, including further wind-whipped drifts and frigid temperatures, has further tested our resilience. Since there has been plenty of warning for these storms, most of us in towns across the Island have come through unscathed, and certainly more favored than many other New Englanders.
Owing to the sheer volume of snow, though, resources were clearly strained, and success in clearing roads and sidewalks, freeing up emergency-vehicle access, and reconnecting neighborhoods with main streets, and then in getting mountainous piles of the heavy white stuff reduced if not removed, played out differently in each town.
Despite our impulse to patience with the immensity of the task, though, it’s hard to ignore the roundly held view in Vineyard Haven that the system here started out particularly poorly. The most dramatic and threatening breakdown in preparedness emerged from Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling’s account of an ambulance responding to an emergency call getting stuck on Franklin Street in mid-storm on Jan. 27. A second ambulance was dispatched, but also became stuck, and was ultimately towed to its destination by a front-end loader.
More broadly, Main Street was a mess, Franklin Street was narrowed and slippery, parking was very slow to be restored, trucks with plows were getting stuck. Residents faced no way out of their homes for excessive periods, and after resorting to calling the Tisbury Department of Public Works (DPW) for information or assistance, were sent to voicemail limbo.
Town officials have so far had two opportunities — a selectmen’s meeting on Feb. 2 and a Department of Public Works meeting on Feb. 9 — to talk to us about what they’ve learned and convince us that they’ll get it right the next time. It looks like there’s a long way to go.
As Rich Saltzburg reported in The Times of Feb. 4 (“Tisbury selectmen review response to January blizzard”), the public discussion at the Feb. 2 selectmen’s meeting gave little indication that anything much went awry. Town administrator John “Jay” Grande did concede that “there were areas where some additional planning and effort would have mitigated some of those [blizzard-related] impacts.”
Selectmen chairman Jonathan Snyder was equally undemanding in his assessment, calling storm preparedness and performance “a work in progress.” These seem overly patient, given the extent of community frustration.
If the few days between the storm and the selectmen’s meeting didn’t allow enough time for a serious assessment, it certainly was a reasonable expectation for the Department of Public Works (DPW) board meeting on Feb. 9. But as Steve Myrick reported in the Feb. 12 Times (“Tisbury DPW response to the snowstorm faulted by residents, town officials”), that meeting was particularly frustrating.
DPW Commissioner Jeff Kristal was willing to step up: “We failed,” he acknowledged. But DPW board member John Thayer, citing the extent of the storm and DPW’s limited resources, disagreed. “I’m not going to apologize for us needing an extra day,” he said. And DPW’s salaried director Glenn Mauk agreed with resident Charles Cournoyer that “there is not a plan in place … My limited time here has identified many different areas where we have a lack of planning. What we found by the second day was the staff was down to four people.”
Mr. Thayer’s deflection doesn’t wash: We need resources and plans to anticipate the big storms, not the ordinary ones. And Mr. Mauk’s bid for rookie status isn’t convincing: With one year (including a full winter season) under his belt, he should have known what was needed.
Admittedly, other factors are at work here, including a tense labor environment and a baffling, persistent confusion regarding responsibility for clearing Tisbury’s many private roads. The most obvious problem standing in the way of clear assignments of responsibility, though, is a structural gap in Tisbury governance big enough to drive a truck (and attached plow) through.
As Selectman Tristan Israel explained at the Feb. 2 meeting, “Under Tisbury’s government structure, selectmen have no authority over the five independently elected public works commissioners.” Selectman Melinda Loberg explained the same thing in an interview with The Times.
Independent boards with extensive responsibility for important public services, such as the Tisbury DPW, aren’t particularly rare. The general argument for divorcing them from broader governance is that it protects professionalism from political meddling. The risk with independent boards is that the performance and the shared accountability we require can be variable and undependable, and we have no easy remedy.
An important opportunity to make progress in Tisbury is coming up soon. The town’s visioning process, which for several months has been engaging many community members in setting an agenda for the town’s future in ways big and small, has identified improving town governance as a major area of interest. And town meeting has approved and allocated funds for a consultant to examine town government and reorganize town departments, hopefully taking a very careful look at the independent-board structure DPW enjoys.
Consulting studies can be important tools in the right hands, or they can gather dust and disappear in the mists of time. But Selectman Loberg reports “more of a sentiment for it now than there has been in a while.” It seems a great moment to capitalize on hard-learned lessons.
Early signs of improved preparedness began to emerge at the end of the Feb. 9 meeting, and are welcomed. And efforts during and following the second round of blizzard conditions this week seem much improved. But this is a moment of greater opportunity, where well-intended folks can give up the turf they hold that almost none of really care about, and remember that what we require is a set of elected officials who understand that their job is to make things better and make things work.
This article is updated to correct the spelling of DPW commissioner Jeff Kristal’s name.