What will the town that always does the right thing do now?
It has been my honor and privilege to serve as selectman in the town of West Tisbury for nearly 29 years. During that period our town has experienced the profound change consequential to our transformation from a very small town to a much larger and more complex community. We have struggled with the difficult issues resulting from explosive development and population growth: increasing costs of municipal services, expanding school enrollment, declining school enrollment, wildly fluctuating property values, environmental concerns and the preservation of our unique rural character, to name just a few. In the midst of and in spite of this climate of rapid change, there have been several significant constants of which I have been acutely aware. One has been the willingness of the town to work together for the good of the community. Another has been the ability of West Tisbury to consistently do the right thing.
At the special town meeting on Jan. 17, the selectmen will ask the voters to appropriate the funds needed to settle the bills from three vendors engaged by the town in connection with the case currently before the Appellate Tax Board (William Graham vs. West Tisbury Board of Assessors). These vendors are Vision Appraisal Technology, Coleman and Sons Appraisal Group, and attorney Ellen M. Hutchinson, who were all asked to perform work in connection with the case and, after doing so, submitted invoices for their services.
In hiring each of these vendors, the process followed by the town was severely flawed. Simply put, there was no appropriation in place to pay for these services. In addition, the board of assessors executed contracts on behalf of the town without proper authority. Both of these situations were in violation of the Massachusetts General Laws. They were very serious mistakes. But they were honest mistakes, and we have learned from them.
The board of selectmen, as the executive body of the town, must assume responsibility for many of the factors that have contributed to this difficult situation. We should have been more aware of the potential costs involved in the defense of the case before the Appellate Tax Board. We should have known that costs were being incurred without a proper appropriation. We should have realized that contracts had been executed without proper authorization. We did not, and that is an indication of a fundamental breakdown in communication.
In response, we have formulated a policy that addresses access to town counsel, in order to more closely monitor the expenditures for legal services. Going forward, we must, and we will, engage in a dialogue with the other town departments to develop policies and procedures that will help us to avoid similar problems in the future.
In the case at hand, the selectmen, believing that there should be room for adjustment in the charges, have met with the three vendors and negotiated substantial reductions. We feel that the amounts presented in the warrant articles represent fair and equitable payment for services rendered in good faith. An affirmative vote on these articles is the only means by which the town may authorize the funding to settle these accounts.
Some are of the opinion that the town should refuse to pay these bills because, due to the defective process, there is no legal obligation to do so. While this may be technically correct, it would, in my opinion, be a morally indefensible position for the town. Those who provide services to the town should be entitled to fair and timely compensation for their work. To refuse to pay because of a technicality would almost certainly lead to more litigation and might do irreparable damage to our case currently before the Appellate Tax Board.
I am confident that the town of West Tisbury will come together on Tuesday night and do the right thing by voting to meet its obligations. We have made enough mistakes in this matter. Let's not make another.
John Early is the longest serving selectman on the West Tisbury board of selectmen.