West Tisbury selectmen decline, 2-1, further negotiations with Bill Graham
In a bizarre week in the dispute between William Graham and their town, the West Tisbury selectmen voted 3-0 on Wednesday to discuss a settlement with him, and then voted 2-1 on Saturday not to. A majority of the selectmen refused to re-hear the substance of the case, preferring to leave it to the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB), which has completed hearing testimony in the longest-running residential tax case in Massachusetts history.
But in a surprise announcement on Saturday, Mr. Graham said that although he is confident of winning his case, he will not collect from the town the money he expects to be awarded by the courts. He maintains that his sole object has always been to make significant changes in the assessors' office. By that he means, as he said three weeks ago, "Redo this system from scratch and get rid of the people who have abused it for over 20 years."
In an opening statement at Saturday's meeting, chairman of selectmen Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter summed up his reason for ending negotiations: "Mr. Graham seems to want another trial with the board of selectmen, rather than talking about settling. He wants to bring up all the issues again that he's brought up before the Appellate Tax Board. That does not make sense to me." However, Mr. Manter also promised that if the ATB should validate Mr. Graham's charges against the assessors, he would be ready to take action to remedy problems.
Mr. Hearn and the assessors
Selectman Glenn Hearn voted against the motion to suspend negotiations until an ATB ruling, wanting to investigate Mr. Graham's accusations immediately. In both selectmen's meetings last week, Mr. Hearn expressed sympathy with Mr. Graham's case and with others who have complained of unfair, arbitrary, or confusing treatment from the assessors' office. Mr. Hearn proposes two ways to remove the assessors from office. One, he suggests, would be for the town meeting to vote to make the assessors appointed rather than elected.
Another more complicated and less reliable plan would be to bring to the assessors a negotiated settlement, first from the selectmen and then from the town voters in the form of a warrant article. If the assessors refused to accept the voter-approved settlement plan, Mr. Hearn would report them to the Massachusetts commissioner of revenue, who has the power to replace them, though there is no guarantee that a commissioner would do so. Mr. Hearn framed the first two steps of this plan as a motion on Wednesday. The motion was defeated 1-2, with Mr. Manter and selectman John Early voting against. Mr. Hearn then made a second motion, step one only - to negotiate with Mr. Graham and present a settlement to the assessors - which passed 3-0. In response to a question, Mr. Hearn said that there is nothing to prevent the selectmen from voting later to take the second step if the first fails.
In an Alice-in-Wonderland sequence of events, before Mr. Hearn made his motion on Wednesday, Mr. Graham had withdrawn his offer to negotiate and to forego repayment of taxes in return for "fixing the flaws" in the assessors' office, noting that Mr. Early and Mr. Manter were unwilling to discuss the issues raised at the trial.
After the passage of Mr. Hearn's second motion, Mr. Graham agreed to the Saturday meeting, but commented, "I don't know what we're going to talk about."
The Wednesday meeting
Mr. Graham had returned to the selectmen on Wednesday to complain about comments made by the assessors' attorney Ellen Hutchinson and reported in The Times the previous week (Dec. 8). Mr. Graham accused Ms. Hutchinson of misleading the selectmen and the voters. Her explanation of the reason why a property record card was changed contradicts, he said, the testimony in the transcripts. "What she is saying [to The Times] is that the explanation she is giving [for the change in the record card] is her explanation. It's not the town's, it's not the assessors'. She's making it up."
Mr. Graham said that he found her comments inappropriate, and he added, "And it's not the first time Ms. Hutchinson has done this." He said that he is troubled that the selectmen are getting their information about the issues from Ms. Hutchinson.
Mr. Graham went on to say, "It is hard to talk with you because on the one hand you won't read the transcript [of the trial] and look at the facts for yourselves, but on the other hand when I tell you facts that are based in the transcript, you say, 'Well, that's my opinion.'"
Mr. Manter replied, "You've done a great job in presenting your case, but we aren't sure who is right and who is wrong." He went on to say that the ATB would deal with the disputed issues of the trial.
Mr. Graham commented, "Then I guess we've wasted a lot of time. I came to you more than two months ago saying I would like to settle this case. I would like to have it stop costing me money, and I would like to have it stop costing the town money. Had you told me then what you tell me now, I would have gone away."
After some further discussion, in which Mr. Manter suggested that a settlement might be reached separate from the issues in the trial, Mr. Graham withdrew the offer he had made earlier in the fall, "because it's clear to me you're not going to do anything." But he added, "I will leave it open to the town. I have no intention of collecting back taxes on this case from the taxpayers of West Tisbury, but I don't see any point, really, in talking to the selectmen."
Nevertheless, Mr. Hearn made two motions proposing to negotiate, and the Saturday meeting took place.
The Saturday meeting
The tone of the Saturday meeting was set by chairman Manter's opening remarks, which made it clear that he would not discuss the issues before the ATB.
Mr. Hearn, however, proposed "addressing things which are perceived to be inconsistencies in West Tisbury's implementation of [the mass] appraisal system." Items to be discussed, he said, include the definition of wetlands, the formula used by the assessors, and neighborhood factors in this case and in the rest of the town. "I want to make sure," he concluded, "that West Tisbury has a fair and equitable valuation system. Right now, there's been a lot of questions about it."
Mr. Early replied, "I don't feel qualified personally and I don't feel that this board is qualified to negotiate a settlement in this matter. I'm not a trained assessor and I have no experience assessing property.... It would be amateur hour to try to rehash assessing practices. I don't see it as a productive endeavor." Further, Mr. Early repeated that he didn't think the selectmen had any authority to negotiate under the laws of Massachusetts.
Mr. Graham told the selectmen that he has always planned to win his case on appeal to higher courts. Expressing uncertainty about the ATB, he said he was confident in winning before the Massachusetts court of appeals. He compared his case to West Tisbury's case against the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank, in which the ATB's ruling in favor of the town was reversed by the appeals court of Massachusetts. He warned that the town will be faced with further legal expenses as he brings appeals of other years' assessments, and as others also appeal to the ATB and perhaps beyond (he named Tim and Ellen Guiney and Paul Levy, but said there will be others next year).
However, reiterating that his aim is to "fix the system," Mr. Graham said, "I'm telling you today that whatever back taxes are awarded to me in this case, if it must go through to its conclusion, whether by the Appellate Tax Board or the appeals court, I will not try to collect on the judgment. I tell you that, and I tell the town that."
Mr. Graham summed up by saying, "You owe it to the town to take your own independent look [at the assessors' office], whether you're talking to me or not talking to me. If you find that the system is seriously broken, as I believe it is, then I think you should do what you can as leaders, as selectmen, to tell the people that it's broken [and] not to ask them to spend further money trying to help the people who broke the system to cover up what they have done. I think you should urge them to step aside so the rest of us can move ahead."
Mr. Early moved that the selectmen "not contemplate further negotiations with Mr. Graham, pending the decision of the ATB." Seconded by Mr. Manter, the motion passed 2-1, with Mr. Hearn voting nay.
The Saturday meeting was attended by more spectators than any other in recent years. Speakers questioned the selectmen about the warrant articles on the upcoming Jan. 17 special town meeting. Some speakers argued that the bills, which were incurred without an advance appropriation, should not be paid at all. Others objected to the selectmen's resubmitting the same bills when the voters have already said no.
Mr. Hearn replied that the bills, some of them reduced, will appear separately, rather than lumped together as they were in November, and at least some of them will have to be paid, because not paying them would result in further lawsuits against the town.
Resident William Haynes agreed: "I wish we'd had this conversation $270,000 ago, but as I said in town meeting, we have to pay our bills."
Chairman Manter summed up the town's position: "These vendors were hired to perform services for the town. We received those services.... Even though the process wasn't proper, it was done as past practice had been done for many, many years. Now we've changed that past practice, so it won't happen again, but we did receive services which the town engaged for in good faith."