West Tisbury will propose 2% COLA
A unified West Tisbury board of selectmen differed from the town's personnel board over cost of living increases for town employees last week. But then the three selectmen locked horns over their core rights and responsibilities in several areas of town governance.
Selectmen voted to recommend to voters at annual town meeting a two-percent Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) for town workers, the same amount recommended by the finance committee. The increase will apply in fiscal 2010, which begins on July 1.
The town personnel board had recommended a 3.6-percent increase. The proposed FY 2010 budget is $13,000,356, some $57,000 below current FY 2009 budget, and would be reduced by an additional $28,000, if voters approve the lower COLA.
Selectmen approved the 42-article annual town meeting warrant that will be presented to voters on April 14. Last week's often tempestuous meeting found first-term selectman Richard Knabel at odds with his veteran colleagues, Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter and Dianne Powers.
Mr. Knabel first took aim at a policy that selectmen put in place several years ago to better control legal costs, which were often expanded when town departments made multiple calls for legal advice. The policy requires that requests for legal advice by town boards be coordinated through town executive secretary Jennifer Rand. "I have no problem with our legal policy as it relates to town departments," he said. "My problem is how it's applied to the selectmen. I've never believed it applied to selectmen."
Ms. Powers argued that working together is important for the three selectmen, as well as the several town departments, so coordination is valuable among the selectmen also.
Mr. Manter, selectman chairman, said that setting the selectmen apart from rules applied to other departments provides a poor role model, and that acting individually could produce confusion and expense. "It's important that the left hand know what the right hand is doing," he said. "You, Dianne, and I could have each consulted counsel and had three opinions and three large bills."
"We were elected individually, not as a slate," Mr. Knabel said. "That we'll all not always agree is a given, but we have responsibility for due diligence and the right of inquiry. I don't believe the majority can tell the minority 'you can't do this.'" He added that neither the state nor four other towns have clear policy or statutory requirements regarding counsel or access to it, and that towns are free to choose their own policies.
"I'm perfectly willing to discuss but not to have the majority overrule the minority," Mr. Knabel said, if he believed the majority vote compromised his statutory responsibility.
"Majority rule - that's standard in democracy, isn't it?" asked Mr. Manter.
"Not in this case," Mr. Knabel retorted.
"We are elected as individuals, but as a board we should be a cohesive unit. Mr. Chairman, we have a problem," Ms. Powers said.
Selectmen Manter and Powers then voted to amend the legal access policy to specifically include the board of selectmen over Mr. Knabel's opposition and objection.
In comments following the meeting, Mr. Knabel told The Martha's Vineyard Times, "I am willing to accept majority rule in most cases but I reserve the right to take action when I believe my responsibility requires it. There is a limit to surrendering principle for the sake of harmony."