Opinion

Martha’s Vineyard residents and visitors benefit from a number of private, nonprofit organizations. Most rely on a dedicated core of volunteers who are willing to do the heavy lifting, and they derive the majority of their financial support from a small percentage of Island seasonal and year-round residents, but promote missions that benefit all who live and visit here.

The more public organizations readily spring to mind. Walking trails, open vistas, fishing derbies, and sporting events organized to support a good cause are tangible enjoyments with which we can all identify. A series of lawsuits in state and federal courts? Not so much.

But make no mistake. The decades-long, and costly, legal battle the Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association (AGHCA) has waged to force the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head to adhere to the terms of the settlement agreement it signed is of vital interest to all Island residents, because it ensures that zoning restrictions agreed to by town voters may be enforced on tribal lands.

Since its founding in 1973, the Gay Head Taxpayers Association, later renamed, has repeatedly gone to court to protect the terms of the 1983 settlement agreement between the town, the state, the tribe, and the nonresident taxpayers of what was then Gay Head. That agreement helped untangle land claims that had tied real estate transactions in the town in a knot.

Ratified by the state legislature in 1985 and by Congress in 1987, the Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1987, which all parties signed, provides that the settlement lands “shall be subject to all federal, state, and local laws, including town zoning laws, state and federal conservation laws and the regulations of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC).”

Individuals may chafe from time to time over zoning restrictions. This page has from time to time criticized the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for declaring a project a development of regional impact when the regional impact is hard to discern. But it is those zoning regulations, formulated over time and approved on town meeting floors, that Island citizens have relied on to preserve the quality and character of Martha’s Vineyard.

Absent the settlement agreement, the tribe would be free to develop its lands as it sees fit. The tribe has argued that its own land-use regulations mirror those of the town of Aquinnah, and are every bit as stringent. It is a claim that is hard to reconcile with two successive votes by the tribal membership to turn an unused community center erected with taxpayer funds into a boutique casino. All Islanders have a stake in the AGHCA fight, and the AGHCA ought to be able to count on their support.

The AGHCA won a significant victory last month. In a decision dated Feb. 27, U.S. District Court Judge F. Dennis Saylor IV said that the tribe remains bound by the terms of the settlement agreement, and knowingly waived its sovereign immunity with respect to tribal lands.

The context was a lawsuit filed in December 2013 by Governor Deval Patrick to block the tribe from moving forward with a gaming facility on Martha’s Vineyard. The Patrick administration argued that the tribe forfeited its right to tribal gaming on the Island when it signed the settlement act.

The question still to be answered is whether the the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) signed in 1988 trumps the settlement act. That answer is likely years and many more legal bills down the road. But one may infer from Judge Saylor’s decision that irrespective of whether the tribe is allowed to go into the gambling business — a gamble at best — it will still be required to abide by local zoning regulations.

The Aquinnah/Gay Head Community Association, Inc. was not formed solely to engage in legal fights. Over the years it has generously supported a number of activities, including those of the tribe, and most recently has lent considerable support to the effort to move the Gay Head Lighthouse back from the brink of destruction.

Ideally, tribal leaders would honor an agreement signed in good faith and upheld by state and federal judges, and the AGHCA could begin to devote the group’s energy and money to community endeavors and not lawsuits.

If thoughtful Islanders are asked to identify critical community problems and challenges, the shortage of affordable housing for all of our year-round community will likely rank at the top of the list. It’s hard to imagine a supportable argument that shelter for the families and individuals who live and work here is somehow optional.

Barry Stringfellow’s recent report (Feb. 19, “Martha’s Vineyard housing shortage reaches critical mass”) is the first installment in a multipart series about this complex and frustrating challenge, and the hard choices and decisions we’ll need to make if we want to be a healthy and inclusive community.

The facts and statistics of our affordable-housing failure are stark: “virtually nonexistent” year-round market-rate leases, according to Dukes County Regional Housing Authority (DCRHA) Executive Director David Vigneault; 235 individuals and families on a waiting list for year-round housing and rental assistance (against an inventory of 79 units and little turnover); estimates from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s (MVC) 2013 housing-needs assessment that more than 2,200 Island households, about 30 percent of Islanders, may meet income qualifications for assistance; waiting lists of 12 to 14 years for federal Section 8 funds; and effects in all quarters of the Island, extending to teachers and young professionals as well as seasonal and underemployed workers and their families. With Martha’s Vineyard house prices exceeding what an Island family with the median household income can afford by more than $200,000 (second only to Nantucket among Massachusetts counties), conventional home ownership seems an unlikely remedy.

Attention to our severe affordable-housing shortage is longstanding, going back at least to the 2001 assessment done under MVC auspices. Since that report was published, many Islanders have labored long and hard to provide buffers against market forces and community-lifestyle preferences. The DCRHA, the Island Housing Trust, the now-inactive Martha’s Vineyard Housing Fund, the six Island towns, and the MVC have all contributed to a range of program efforts, and the tangible results — such as DCRHA’s managed rental units and Morgan Woods — are bright spots in a grim picture.

Yet we remain seemingly as far behind as always: terribly urgent and moving individual stories, impossibly long waiting lists, well-intended and passionate public and private agencies and organizations strapped for funds and for land, and the notable absence of consensus on how to climb out of the hole we’re in.

At its heart, our affordable-housing problem isn’t about greed or indifference; it’s the natural result of multiple market forces inexorably playing out, in our case pummeling hundreds or more of our neighbors who are unable to compete for high-priced housing. Inescapably, Martha’s Vineyard’s shortage of affordable housing is the result of a distorted and flawed market that fails our community.

The laws of supply and demand apply here, of course, but our supply of homes for sale or rent is limited (and apartments are almost nonexistent), and the pace of demand is set by vacation and second-home buyers. And nonresident homeowners, understandably taking advantage of the very high seasonal rents they can command, don’t put their properties into the year-round rental pool at all. In the face of severe supply constraints, nonresident demand easily pushes market prices beyond the means of many of our neighbors.

In the mists of the past — through the 1990s, before the new gilded age began to land on Vineyard shores — local and off-Island demand for resources like housing coexisted well enough. Stories of yurts, tepees, and school buses providing summer accommodations for locals just seemed to add to our safe bohemian charm.

While demand and prices rose with accelerating impact on our affordable-housing supply over the recent decade or two, we zealously continued to limit the Island’s supply of housing through low-density zoning, and, however unintentionally, through aggressive conservation efforts. We fretted about too many housing starts, and experimented with moratoriums. We worried over defining mansions. We preserved the style and undeniable attraction of rural vistas and small villages (and thus added to our draw for suburban and urban refugees), but failed to connect the dots to see the unintended effect our aesthetic preferences would have on the affordable-housing supply we need.

To be clear, the problem doesn’t stem from the values we favor about views and lifestyle; it stems from failing to expand on those values to reflect their ultimate social cost — our inability to simultaneously maintain housing alternatives for folks who live and work here. We can’t punt on the harder work: zoning and development policies to encourage the affordable-housing supply we need.

Scale and values matter, of course, and communities around the world arrive at their own calculus. New approaches here — selective high-density zoning, developer incentives for building market-rate and subsidized units, a reversal in thinking about secondary dwellings on home lots (including relaxed zoning and homeowner incentives), assured ongoing town support, so-called millionaire taxes on high-end real estate transactions, and other ideas this creative and desirable community can devise — need to be part of a larger public discussion.

Adequate housing is a fundamental marker of a healthy and whole community, and if we don’t deliver — if we let the market take its course and try to mitigate its exclusionary effects at the margins — we need to know that we’ve failed our community by choice.

The prospect that life might return to the Strand Theater in Oak Bluffs and the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven is good news. These stars, now dimmed, have been removed from the Island’s constellation of good times too long.

As so often happens on the Vineyard, someone had a good idea and decided to act on it — in this case, Mark Snider, co-owner of Winnetu Oceanside Resort in Edgartown, who picked up the phone and made a call months ago to Benjamin Hall Jr. of Edgartown, co-owner of the Strand and Capawock theaters and attorney for Lucky 7 Realty Trust, the family company, to talk about how the two buildings might be revived.

Mr. Snider has formed the Martha’s Vineyard Theater Foundation (MVTF), and is embarked on a mission to raise $1 million in donations to renovate both buildings.

Martha’s Vineyard residents and Island visitors with good memories will remember the pleasurable sound of the clatter of the ancient film projector, and the smell of freshly cracked popcorn and melted butter in the lobby, of the iconic Capawock, built in 1913. Greeting friends outside and in the foyer of the movie theater was as much a part of the Island’s social fabric as a Sunday trip to the dump.

The newest member of the theater renovation board, Grammy-winning singer/songwriter Carly Simon, described her memories of the Capawock to reporter Barry Stringfellow: “I saw lots of teddy bear movies here. I saw lots of Disney movies here; I saw E.T. for the first time here. I also saw Heartburn here, which I wrote the soundtrack for, and Working Girl, too.”

Vineyarders have proven time and again they will generously support the arts. Look at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, which opened for its 32nd season last summer following a two-year, $2.5 million renovation project, or the state-of-the-art Martha’s Vineyard Film Center, just a glimmer in the eyes of film buffs back in 1999 when they formed the Martha’s Vineyard Film Society.

Of course, the details of the arrangement and Mr. Snider’s ability to convince Island residents and seasonal visitors to invest in this project will determine its ultimate success. Islander are right to ask tough questions. Why should the public invest in properties owned by the Halls when the Halls have not? It is reasonable to ask just how many movie theaters one Island can support. And it would be wrong to discount the potential effect on Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown, the Island’s stalwart year-round commercial movie house, and a supportive member of the community.

Mr. Snider has a big job ahead of him. But he seems equal to the task, and it would be unfortunate if Islanders were to turn their backs on this endeavor at the outset, given its significant potential for the future.

“We want this to be more than just movie theaters,” Mr. Snider told reporter Barry Stringfellow. “We want to have lecture series, live performances, and school shows. We want it to have diversity so we can reach new audiences.”

The Island has big venues and small venues, but medium-size ones capable of hosting lectures and performances are scarce. The two newly renovated theaters could fill an important niche. They could also help smooth relations between the Halls and exasperated public officials.

The Hall family is one of the Vineyard’s largest private owners of commercial and residential properties, and hold a valuable real estate portfolio that includes anchor buildings in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Vineyard Haven. In recent years, the Halls have attracted considerable criticism from town selectmen over their stewardship of downtown properties, most notably the long-vacant “yellow house” property on Summer Street in Edgartown, and the deteriorating Strand and Island theaters in Oak Bluffs. There has been talk of eminent domain in Edgartown and outright talk of demolition in Oak Bluffs.

It is long past time to look down the road past the lawsuits, the acrimony, and the excuses and accusations on both sides. We want to believe that the Halls want what is best for their family and the Island’s interests. Over the years, the continued operation and existence of the Capawock has been a labor of love for family patriarch Benjamin “Buzzy” Hall, at any given time the theater’s projectionist, ticket taker and concessions seller.

Thanks to Mr. Snider’s outreach, there is an opportunity not to be lost to forge a public-private partnership that will benefit the community as a whole and return the movie theaters to operation.

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.

We Vineyarders pride ourselves on our strong sense of community. It’s both a bulwark against our Island’s relative isolation and an antidote to the more urbanized lives many of us have left behind. We are mostly self-selecting immigrants choosing a high-octane but still small-town life, and our frequent remove from family, from off-Island friends, and from the broader resources off-Island can give us particular pleasure in acts of caring for and thinking about one another.

We extend our definition of caring to include a healthy respect for differing worldviews among neighbors. We may think others are careless thinkers, out of step, flat-earthers, or just plain wrong on the issues, but we comfortably coexist. Our genteelly bohemian tent is big, it’s welcoming, it’s respectful, and it’s ultimately enriching. So it’s an unwritten rule of Island life that we give a wide berth to ideas and opinions we may find disagreeable or uninformed.

We make a serious mistake, though, when our predisposition to tolerance causes us to turn our backs on settled science and state law regarding infectious disease immunization, and grant intellectual and moral equivalence to junk science.

The current national resurgence of measles demonstrates the consequence of this disregard. Measles all but disappeared in the U.S. 15 years ago because universal inoculation with the highly effective MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine meant that only rarely would someone become infected, and thus able to carry and transmit the disease. Absent near-universal participation, though, the entire prevention model will fail, and the risk of infection will pass from the few opting out to all of us, especially infants, the elderly, and those unable to receive inoculations such as pregnant women, and the immune system–depressed such as cancer patients.

The current reemergence of measles isn’t the result of diminished vaccine effectiveness, or a breakdown of compliance within less-advantaged communities. It is largely self-inflicted, a result of faddish, flawed thinking, often clustered in high social-status zip codes and neighborhoods. Jump-started by a single fraudulent research publication conjuring up a false link to autism, and fueled by Internet and talk-show hysterics, and the wish that somehow, healthy food choices and natural approaches to general health can ward off infectious disease epidemics, inoculation rates have fallen precipitously in many places, and the public health structure we depend on is at great risk.

If all this seems remote, it shouldn’t. Martha’s Vineyard parents seek and receive exemptions from Massachusetts law requiring vaccinations (including the MMR vaccine) against 14 communicable diseases as a condition of enrollment for children in public schools at an astonishingly high rate — at 9%, it’s six times the state average for students entering kindergarten, as reported in a Times story written by Nathaniel Horwitz (“Martha’s Vineyard students lag in required vaccinations,” April 16, 2014).

And while it’s true, as Horwitz wrote, that “an exemption does not necessarily mean a student has no immunization,” our very high rate of exemption allows the pool of those free to have their children forego regular immunization to be that much larger. Statistics — gathered in October of 2013, which remain about the same — bear out the consequence: Martha’s Vineyard schools reported children without immunization at a rate of 2%, two-and-one-half times greater than the national average. Up-Island, the extent of nonimmunization is much greater — 4% in West Tisbury, and 16% in Chilmark.

Nationally, all states allow medical exemption with clear and strict standards. All but two also allow exemption on religious grounds, with varying degrees of associated documentation. And some, but not Massachusetts, also allow exemptions on philosophical grounds.

At the heart of our noncompliance is the use of religious grounds as an umbrella for anti-vaccine sentiment, and our tolerance for granting unchecked and unquestioned exemptions, however unwittingly such tolerance harms the rest of us. On the Vineyard, parents can submit affidavits asserting their religious privilege, and as Dr. James Weiss, superintendent of schools, recently told The Times’ Janet Hefler, “We don’t question exemptions requested on religious grounds. I don’t feel it’s my place to.” Acknowledging the low rates of immunization we experience, Dr. Weiss said, “We really can’t force [parents] to inoculate their children if they’ve claimed a religious exemption.”

We understand Dr. Weiss’s reluctance to press this challenge to parental choice, but we disagree; many avenues to increased compliance could be and need to be employed. As Dr. Weiss points out, school nurses have been diligently trying to spread the message, but more public discussion is needed. And tougher enforcement of the religious-exemption procedure is also needed.

An interesting illustration of what can be done is found in two unlikely states: Mississippi, with no provision for religious exemption and a strict policy for medical exemption (only 17 students exempted statewide, compared with 12 on Martha’s Vineyard) has achieved inoculation compliance exceeding 99%. And the 191 religious exemptions granted by Vineyard schools should be compared with 468 religious and philosophical exemptions reported by the CDC for all of Alabama.

Public health is a fundamental component of a safe community, and participating in inoculation against dangerous communicable disease is one of the fundamental agreements we accept as part of living respectfully among our neighbors. However earnest and understandable the impulse to protect our children against any theoretical risk, in the end the facts are otherwise. School administrators have to do their job, and the community needs to make sure they get all the support they need.

Those who were disappointed to read that the county commissioners voted to continue to actively defend their position in a lawsuit brought by the airport commission (Jan. 21, “County commissioners reverse legal strategy, will defend against airport lawsuit”) against the county may not be looking at the big picture.

A string of earlier rulings in favor of the airport seems not to have sunk in. Perhaps total defeat is what it will take the seven Dukes County commissioners to realize they are wrong — this time around.

Of course, the cost to bring clarity to the county commissioners will be paid by the taxpayers of Dukes County, who support, through their town’s county assessment, a regional governmental shell that has done little to win their confidence.

The commissioners’ decision to proceed was made despite the wise refusal in November of the county advisory board, which oversees county finances, to authorize more spending on legal expenses. Where will the money to pay the county lawyer come from? Details, details. Those can be worked out later with some budgetary sleight of hand with the assistance of the county treasurer, a party to the suit and one of the long-standing airport protagonists; there is a principle at stake — don’t cross the county.

The county commission appoints the airport commission, which by state statute is a wholly independent body responsible for the county-owned Martha’s Vineyard Airport. But the county commissioners and the county treasurer have never quite accepted that as settled fact, and periodically attempt to meddle in airport affairs, most recently in connection with the clumsy way the airport handled disciplinary proceedings against an airport employee, who was later fired. The particulars of that messy skirmish are not the central issue. It is the statutory autonomy of the airport commission.

Or at least that is the way Judge Robert H. Bohn saw it in a decision entered against the county on July 14, 2005. And that is the way Dukes County Superior Court Associate Justice Richard J. Chin saw it in two rulings on matters of law issued on August 7, 2014 and on Nov. 5, 2014, in which the judge flatly ruled against the county and said the county had little likelihood of success.

How is it possible, then, that with the exception of commissioner John Alley, who disagrees with the majority, that commissioners Leon Arthur Brathwaite, Tristan Israel, David Holway, Christine Todd, Lenny Jason Jr. and Gretchen Tucker Underwood read those decisions and remain optimistic that the county will prevail?

Is it possible that the county commissioners are more clever than is readily apparent? That there is really a method to their madness?

Last April, the county commissioners refused to reappoint two airport commissioners in favor of one of their own, Ms. Todd, and Rich Michelson, a former airport employee and shop steward who has made no secret of his animosity to airport management.

In September, the county appointed Beth Toomey, retired West Tisbury police chief and former interim county commissioner, to fill an opening created by a resignation from the airport commission.

Unhappy with the pace of change, the county commissioners then voted to expand the airport commission from seven to nine members. Judge Chin squashed that ham-handed attempt to undercut the airport, which attracted the attention of state aeronautics officials, who have their own longstanding concerns about county efforts to mess with the airport.

But all things come to those who wait. This month the three-year terms of airport commissioners Jim Coyne, Connie Teixeira, and Denys Wortman expire. Those three, along with Norman Perry, who has one year left in his term, form the nucleus of an airport commission that for all its bungling understood that it is not under the direction of the county commissioners, who have their own rich history of bungling.

The county commissioners may be licking their chops at the prospect of jettisoning Mr. Coyne and Ms. Teixeira (Mr. Wortman has had enough, and will not seek another term) and wielding their appointing authority to construct a more compliant airport commission, one that would decide to drop its lawsuit against the county — how sweet would that be? Don’t bet on it.

In 1997, the exasperated executive director of the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission insisted the county commissioners sign off on a set of grant assurances that prohibited interference by the county manager or county in airport affairs in order to free up millions of dollars in state and federal funding for the new airport terminal.

In September, Christopher Willenborg, MassDOT Aeronautics Division administrator, made it quite clear that any reorganization of the airport commission, or attempt to interfere with the autonomy and authority of the airport commission, would be a violation of the airport grant assurances. The county’s wishful thinking notwithstanding, if a newly reorganized airport commission were to relinquish its responsibility to protect its autonomy, we can expect that MassDOT would step in.

How is it possible that the county commissioners still don’t get it? Their job is to appoint the best people they can find to the airport commission. Self-appointments, as they did with Ms. Todd, make a mockery of the process.

The current crop of airport commission applicants include Islanders with aviation and business experience. The county commissioners who meet next on Wednesday ought to take this opportunity to make wise appointments and acknowledge the independence of the airport commission.

The list of Martha’s Vineyard agencies prepared to react immediately in a major Island-wide emergency includes six town police departments, six town fire departments, airport fire crews, four ambulance services, the State Police, and Coast Guard Station Menemsha. These hundreds of men and women are bound by a singular dedication to protecting our Island community — and connected by the radio each responder holds in his or her hand in the midst of an emergency situation.

On Jan. 11, first responders from Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury participated in a training exercise intended to mimic a fire at the Lampost on Circuit Avenue. Over the course of three hours on a Sunday morning, volunteer firemen battled the “blaze,” searched the four-story structure for victims, and rescued a fellow firefighter.

In a follow-up assessment, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose told The Times the drill highlighted the glaring inadequacy of the radio-communication system. “This has been an Island-wide problem for a while now,” Mr. Rose said. “We knew it was an issue, but we didn’t realize the extent of it until today. There were times I couldn’t get commands to my men because their radios weren’t working properly. When the rapid-intervention team went in on a mayday call to save a fellow firefighter, they weren’t able to communicate with him, and we couldn’t hear where they were. That’s completely unacceptable.”

Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling also expressed concern about a radio-communication system he said was designed in the 1960s.

The down-Island fire chiefs and fire department volunteers are to be commended for organizing a drill for an Island-wide emergency that imagines an all-too-real situation. Learning what did not work is just as important as learning what did. One day, the mayday call may be for real.

The Island has been fortunate, and very lucky when we consider the outcome in recent fire emergencies.

On July 4, 2008, a fire broke out in Cafe Moxie on the corner of Spring Street and Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Firefighters rallied quickly, despite the holiday, and contained the blaze. Although the fire caused considerable damage to the adjacent Bunch of Grapes bookstore, there were no injuries. Light winds that day and a quick, professional response were important factors that helped minimize damage to the downtown business district.

Two years later, on July 12, 2010, a fire destroyed the Coast Guard boathouse and numerous boats in Menemsha Harbor. Again, thankfully, there were no injuries. But for a fortuitous wind direction that blew the scorching flames across the water rather than into the harbor shacks, and a quick response by firefighters from across the Island, all of Menemsha might have gone up in flames.

Chief Rose is correct. The situation is completely unacceptable. First responders must be able to communicate effectively.

The current radio network is a hodgepodge of VHF equipment. There is no standard radio. One department uses one radio brand, another department a different brand. Many of the radios do not meet modern state standards. Cross-department communication is cumbersome.

On Friday, Dukes County Sheriff Mike McCormack hosted a meeting of Island public-safety officials and representatives of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) to discuss the radio problem and possible solutions. It was a good start.

Island public-safety officials must work together to create a communications system that is dependable in all circumstances and under all conditions for the volunteers and professionals that man the front lines. Achieving that goal will take regional leadership on a technical and political level. Where will it come from?

The hub of the current system is the Island Communications Center, located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport and under the control of Sheriff McCormack. Nine full-time telecommunicators staff the center seven days a week, 24 hours a day, skillfully and professionally dispatching help as needed around the Island.

Radio scanners make it possible for any citizen to listen in on most radio traffic. It can be an eye-opening experience for those unfamiliar with the level of activity that often occurs behind the scenes. Listen for any length of time, and you will hear the dispatcher say, “Call unreadable,” meaning the dispatcher was unable to clearly hear the first responder in the field. Unreadable is unacceptable.

Good job

The blizzard struck late Monday and lasted through Tuesday night. Throughout the storm, Island first responders — police, firefighters, EMS, and highway department crews — responded to numerous calls for medical assistance.

Unfortunately, their job was made more difficult by the poor judgement of those who decided to venture out during the height of the storm. First responders spent time Tuesday looking for a woman on skis in Long Point thought to be in distress, pulling drivers in stuck cars out of snow banks, and removing cars stuck in the middle of the road and blocking traffic.

In some cases, driving was difficult, and drifting snow made some roads and driveways virtually impassable. That did not stop the first responders. In each case, they found a way to reach those in need of help. Hats off to the first responders.

On Tuesday, the members of the Steamship Authority (SSA) met in Woods Hole for their monthly business meeting, and politely listened to the backers of an online petition who have called on the SSA to repeal or suspend rate hikes that went into effect on New Year’s Day. The members, on the recommendation of boatline management, took no action on the request.

The petitioners made the case that the cost of fuel was one of the factors in the SSA’s need to raise an additional $1.9 million in revenue in the new year to cover increased operating costs projected for 2015, which also included vessel maintenance, employee salaries, health care benefits, and pension benefits. The drop in fuel costs, they argued, undercut the need for rate hikes.

Wayne Lamson, SSA general manager, said that if the authority does end up with a larger surplus than anticipated next year, the extra money will automatically flow into the SSA’s special-purpose funds to be used to pay for the cost of its capital projects, which will help keep rates lower in the future. Big projects in the pipeline that need to be paid for include a $40 million boat and a $60 million reconstruction of the Woods Hole terminal.

Petition backers pointed to their success in gathering almost 3,000 signatures. It is an impressive number and indicative of the power of social media to rally people to a cause, but their success should come as no surprise. Who would not want to see SSA fares drop? Or for that matter, plane fares, cable bills, grocery prices, and the cost of an ice cream cone in the summer?

These petitioners are going after the wrong fix. It would be as if a heart surgeon asked a patient who gets no exercise and eats sausage morning, noon, and night to cut back on the doughnuts at breakfast — it is not a matter of if, but when and where the future clog will occur.

SSA fare hikes are part of a never-ending cycle with no end in sight. And there is nothing in the past history of the SSA to suggest that had this hike not gone into effect, there would not be one in the future.

What is the solution? One petition signer called on the SSA to give year-round Island residents a break at the expense of tourists and seasonal residents. These would be the same seasonal residents — let’s call them the Island’s golden geese — that support our schools, paid for our $50 million hospital built without one Island tax dollar, and who subsidize our discounted excursion fares to the tune of more than 60 percent of the allocated costs, according to an SSA analysis.

Another petitioner suggested limiting the number of vehicles, to slow the growth of Island traffic. Of course, that would mean fewer geese on the ferries and a bigger budget hole that could only be fixed with a rate hike.

An online petition may provide a barometer of sorts, but it provides no basis on which to run a boatline, or any business. That takes planning and careful analysis, not just of immediate circumstances but of future trends. The last serious planning effort was a short-lived exercise that began in January 2001, when then SSA general manager Armand Tiberio presented an 11-page outline titled “SSA Future Ferry Transportation Service Model, a framework for discussion,” to the members.

In Mr. Tiberio’s model, ferry operations to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket would have become part of a larger transportation network in which short-term Island visitors would be pressed to leave their cars on the mainland in favor of fast ferry transportation to the islands. Mr. Tiberio described the service model as an integrated approach that balanced concerns over growth and cars on both islands with a need for the SSA to address rising operating and maintenance costs, aging vessels, and a growing year-round population’s transportation needs. Sound familiar?

Mr. Tiberio’s proposals were designed to shift the transportation focus of the boatline from vehicles to passengers, to make wider use of barging of petroleum products, and to use off-Cape ports, in particular New Bedford, in the reorganized service plan.

Nantucket member Grace Grossman was unwilling to consider change, and skillfully generated vehement opposition to any model that included the port of New Bedford, in the process scuttling any significant discussion of that plan or any other. The political blowback was an irritated legislature’s decision to give New Bedford a seat on the SSA board. File that one under unintended consequences.

Mr. Lamson saw the scalding Mr. Tiberio took. A careful and considerate man, he is focused on running the boatline, not making waves. The only remnant of Mr. Tiberio’s plan is private seasonal New Bedford fast-ferry service: a stepchild if there ever was one, generally ignored by the SSA, not embraced as it should be as part of a wider model.

Instead of trying to claw back a few dollars, or shift costs, the petitioners, and Island officials, ought to be pressing the SSA to hire a competent consultant to take a serious look at its operating model, which now is based on big boats and fare hikes whenever it predicts a budget shortfall. It is time to look decades down the watery road.

Five Corners remains a clogged transportation artery. Is it possible to move the terminal up Beach Road? The Martha’s Vineyard Commission first raised that option, and ought to apply some of its transportation-planning horsepower to another look. The South Coast Rail project would extend service to New Bedford. How would that fit into a transportation model? What will be the cost of the next big boat, and what might be an alternative? It is time for the SSA to undertake a serious and far-reaching look at its service model and how to best accommodate growth, which all trends point to as unavoidable in the future.

by -
0

Many Martha’s Vineyard residents experienced sticker shock when they opened their most recent electric bill this month. In December, the cost of electricity for residential customers, measured as the price per kilowatt-hour (kWh), jumped from 8.892 to 15.371 per kWh. That is a whopping 73 percent increase.

For Islanders who rely on electricity to heat their homes, the hike is a budget buster. For example, one Vineyard Haven family that heats with propane saw their electric bill increase from $74.57 to $136.58. A family that relies on electricity for heat saw their bill jump from $327 to $657. Even accounting for a son home from college over the holidays, it was a shock, said the dad.

According to representatives of the Cape Light Compact, a municipal power-buying group made of Cape and Island towns that negotiates for the best price for its residential and commercial customers, the cost of natural gas for the New England region’s electric generating plants is driving the electric price.

Natural gas is now used to generate 56 percent of New England’s power. As the reliance on natural gas has grown, the pipe-delivery infrastructure has not, and In the winter months, when demand for natural gas to heat homes is at its highest, the price rises. This winter’s rates are the highest seen, and analysts say the factors driving price spikes are likely to continue.

In its waning minutes last week, the Patrick administration released a study that provides little reason to think that winter electricity pricing will drop or even remain stable.

According to a report by Bruce Mohl in CommonWealth magazine, the study by Synapse Energy Economics of Cambridge said the state is likely to continue experiencing sharp spikes in natural gas prices during the winter months for the next four years, because of insufficient pipeline capacity coming into the region. Peak demand for power will be met by other fuels, primarily oil, according to the Synapse report.

In his inaugural address, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that families and businesses are “being hit with unprecedented increases in their energy and electric bills, at exactly the same time energy prices across the rest of the country are falling.”

Massachusetts residents will have to wait and see if Mr. Baker is able to tackle a problem that has been years in the making and will not disappear soon. In the meantime, outside electricity suppliers see a chance to profit from the spike, and in some cases take advantage of consumers who are understandably mystified.

One of the realities of modern life is the proliferation of utterly incomprehensible bills. Trying to make sense of a cable bill, a phone bill, or an electric bill is enough to give a person a headache that will send him or her to the hospital emergency room — and wait until you see that bill.

As Steve Myrick explains in this edition of The Times, the electric bill is made up of several components. NSTAR bills Islanders for the power it delivers (delivery charges) into their homes. The actual power that turns on the lights and stove (generation charges) is sold like a commodity, and here, unlike the delivery charges, Islanders have a choice — they can buy their power through the Cape Light Compact or find another power supplier. These so-called suppliers, middlemen really, contract with various power generators to dump electricity into the New England pool from which we all draw our power.

Last week, outgoing Attorney General Martha Coakley announced that Just Energy Group Inc., a competitive retail electricity supplier in Massachusetts, had agreed “to pay $4 million to settle allegations of deceptive marketing and sales that promised savings but charged significantly higher rates, entered consumers into agreements without their consent, and charged costly termination fees.”

The AG’s office said that Just Energy, through a third-party telemarketing vendor and door-to-door agents, “engaged in deceptive marketing and sales that misled consumers into signing contracts based on attractive introductory pricing, only to later increase their electricity supply costs.”

According to the settlement press release, “Just Energy sales representatives allegedly failed to disclose complete and accurate pricing information to its customers by promising savings or representing that they could help consumers keep their electricity bills low. Instead, consumers were charged rates that were higher than the rates for the electricity supply provided by NSTAR and National Grid. Just Energy also allegedly induced elderly and non-native-English speaking consumers by continuing to offer electricity supply services even after it became clear that they did not understand the terms of the proposed contract.”

Consumers are increasingly under assault by unscrupulous salespeople well versed in how to take advantage of people who may not fully understand their utility bills. Not every offer rises to the level of a scam; some may offer savings. However, Island consumers are well advised to be cautious, and when in doubt, ask questions and seek advice from someone they trust.

The AG’s consumer hotline number is 617-727-8400. Consumers with questions can also contact the consumer division of the Department of Public Utilities at 877-886-5066.

by -
0

Newspapers, including small community newspapers, have a particular duty to observe the deaths of journalists around the world as they do their jobs. The stories that 40, 50, and 60 journalists a year are killed while working on may seem remote, and the publications they work for may seem obscure, but the safety of journalists everywhere to do their work is a universally acknowledged cornerstone of fair and just societies. We make a social contract to protect a free press in order to help preserve our liberty, and we are all weakened when this privilege is assaulted.

So there is an acute anguish attached to watching and reading accounts of the slaughter in France this past week, leaving 17 people dead, beginning with the executions of four satirical cartoonists at the offices of the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo and ending, for now, in a crowded kosher market in a Jewish section of the city.

Charlie Hebdo is a predictable target of outrage, and in fact was the site of a firebomb attack in 2011. Its ’60s and ’70s-era satire was intertwined with the social upheaval of postcolonial, post-World War II France. Defiance of authority and humor at the expense of the powerful were essential if destabilizing steps in French modernization.

Charlie Hebdo is generally beloved, but is also showing its age. Increasingly controversial for drawings and prose meant to provoke and ridicule just about anyone in its sights (and not always the powerful and the pompous) at any cost, its satire increasingly tests the limits to which freedom of expression should be taken. Not all of us would make the same choices that Charlie has made.

But terrorists don’t get to define acceptable speech, and the machine-gun execution of satirical cartoonists, armed only with wit and pen, provides stark testimony to the ascending dissolution of all restraint separating social and religious frustration and anger from slaughter-as-remedy. We need, more than ever, an unencumbered press of all sensibilities, to discover, to illuminate, and most of all to get the story out. We are not “all Charlie,” but we need to all be journalists.

Peter Oberfest is the publisher of The Martha’s Vineyard Times.