West Tisbury voters speak their minds
Special meeting approves spending for tax battle; says yes to zoning changes
An overwhelming majority of the West Tisbury voters who attended Tuesday's special town meeting heeded selectman John Early's plea (published as an Op-Ed in last week's Times) to "do the right thing" and voted for the selectmen's request to pay past and future legal expenses connected with the controversial William Graham tax case. However, two of the articles concerned bills from fiscal year 2005 and required a nine-tenths approval, and a comparatively small group of taxpayers was able to block payment of them.
Voters also approved all five changes to the zoning bylaw proposed by the planning board and enacted a new town bylaw defining a quorum for town meetings at five percent of registered voters.
(Left to right) Selectmen Glenn Hearn, John Early, and Skipper Manter. Photos by Susan Safford
A non-binding resolution introduced from the floor at the end of the meeting and endorsed by the voters, advised town officials not to continue with plans to renovate the town hall.
Moderator Pat Gregory called 215 voters to order at 7:05 pm. The turnout, though smaller than the 288 voters who came to the November meeting, nevertheless constituted about 10 percent of the town's 2,127 registered voters, well above average for a special town meeting. The discussion, though spirited at times, was generally civil. Mr. Gregory kept the debates short, saying that the issues were well known to the voters, and the meeting adjourned at 8:20.
Zoning by-law changes
The planning board's Murray Frank shepherded the five zoning bylaw changes through the meeting. All were part of a single warrant article defeated in November. Mr. Frank said that the planning board had learned its lesson: the more controversial items were not included, and the others were separated into separate warrant articles so that voters could pick and choose.
The finance committee (FinCom) had voted 3-2 to recommend the changes. The dissenting two votes were not based on the merits of the proposals, but on the belief that, "Amendments to bylaws should be proposed at the annual town meeting and not at special town meetings."
Town treasurer Kathy Logue.
The only discussion came with article two, which proposed that small, temporary, inflatable backyard swimming pools be approved by the building inspector rather than through a long and expensive process before the zoning board of appeals (ZBA). Ebba Hierta proposed an amendment requiring that even temporary, inflatable pools go through the ZBA process if they are serviced by mechanical (and possibly noisy) filtration equipment. Ernest Mendenhall, town building inspector, endorsed the amendment and commented that state law requires that anyway. The amendment passed on a voice vote, and the article was approved 120-9.
The remaining planning board articles passed without debate. Article three extends the amnesty period for non-permitted rental apartments (passed 125 to 11). Article four adds "eligible lessee" wherever the phrase "affordable recipient" appears in the law (passed unanimously). Article five added a phrase protecting the ZBA, and article six corrected a typo (both passed unanimously).
Articles 7 through 11 concerned $134,000 incurred in the town's defense of a suit brought by William Graham before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB). The suit is the longest running residential tax case in the history of the ATB, and town expenses have far exceeded anyone's expectations. Because the expenses in articles seven through 11 were incurred without prior appropriation from the town, the voters were not legally obliged to pay the bills. However, though some argued that the bills should not be paid, no one at the meeting argued that the town should walk away from the obligation just because it can. Article 12 asked for $35,000 to pay attorney Ellen Hutchinson to write the final briefs in the case.
Outside the school building and beside a large "Do the Right Thing" sign, employees of the assessors' office distributed copies of Mr. Early's OpEd essay. Inside the building, the FinCom gave voters a handout containing both pros and cons from that body, which had split 2-2 on recommending the legal articles.
Al DeVito, a FinCom member in favor of recommending payment, opened the debate. Mr. DeVito argued four points: the voters do have the right to pay the bills; the services were rendered to the town; the renegotiated bills are reasonable; and not paying them would risk further lawsuits and send a bad message about West Tisbury. The chairman of the FinCom, Sharon Estrella, said later in the meeting that she had voted not to recommend all the articles in the warrant because the selectmen had illegally split the article to pay Vision Appraisal Technologies into two articles after the warrant had closed and after it had been presented to the FinCom. A printed handout from the FinCom listed another reason for dissent: still unanswered questions about the appropriateness of the bills and how they were arrived at.
Speaking after Mr. DeVito, Jonathan Revere said that he has found the "bedrock" issue in the situation is, "Do the voters have the exclusive right to appropriate money, and if so, why were we denied that right?"
Dan Prowten responded that he believes the bedrock issue is the assessors' right to defend the town. He said that opponents of the article were attempting to use "procedural mistakes as a moral excuse to avoid responsibility."
FinCom chairman Sharon Estrella
The debate, far briefer than in November, in the main supported or opposed the ideas expressed by the three opening speakers. Cynthia Riggs, J.C. Murphy, and (late in the meeting) Arnold Fischer spoke against paying the bills. TJ Hegarty, selectman Glenn Hearn, former selectman John Mayhew, Ron Schultz, and town employees Kathy Logue and Maria McFarland all spoke in favor of paying them.
Article seven, to pay Ellen Hutchinson $55,000 for legal services in FY06, and article nine, to pay Vision Appraisal Technologies $6,300 for FY06, both required simple majorities and passed on voice votes.
Article eight, to pay Ms. Hutchinson $19,000 for services in FY05, and article 10, to pay Vision $5,700 for FY05, because they dealt with a previous fiscal year, required a nine-tenths vote and failed, 161-40 and 159-30, respectively.
A footnote to articles eight and 10: Art Nelson called The Times after the meeting to say that he is considering a fund-raising project to pay the bills in the two defeated articles. "If we can find 500 people who think the town should pay its bills, and if they come up with $50 apiece, we could make it right," he said.
Article 11, to pay $47,000 to Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group, elicited the shortest debate. Mr. Revere, noting that the selectmen had requested written confirmation that Coleman would accept $47,000 as payment, asked if the letter has been received. Mr. Early replied with only two words, "It has." The article passed on a voice vote.
Article 12 was for $35,000 to pay Ms. Hutchinson to continue the Graham case through to its conclusion with the ATB. Ms. Hutchinson is on record that this is a not-to-exceed amount. Although Mr. Fischer argued, "This whole case is a huge mistake," the measure passed on a voice vote.
More legal funds, a quorum,
and town hall
Voters also passed without discussion article 13, appropriating an additional $15,000 to the legal expenses budget to see the town through until the annual town meeting in April. These funds are not related to the Graham case.
Article 14, on the warrant by citizen petition, asked voters to define a quorum as five percent of registered voters. Until now, the presence or absence of a quorum has been up to the town moderator. Richard Knabel, who delivered the petition, spoke in favor of the proposal, saying that town business should not be conducted with as few as 50 voters present, as has been done in the past. Susan Goldstein argued that the old system has worked well in the 30 years she has been attending town meetings. Former selectman John Alley replied simply that the new rule is "long overdue." The article passed on a voice vote, and the rule will be in effect from now on.
At the end of the meeting, Les Cutler introduced a resolution which asked for a sense of the meeting as to whether town officials should go forward with plans to renovate the town hall, using what is left of the $3.7 million originally appropriated for the project over a year ago. Those funds turned out to be well short of the $5.5 million required for the project as presented, and voters last fall refused to appropriate another $1.8 million.
At the beginning of this week's town meeting, chairman of the town hall building committee, Ernest Mendenhall, reported that the expanded committee had obtained legal opinions that it could spend the remaining funds (about $3 million) on a similar project greatly reduced in scope, but he invited citizens to attend the committee's next meeting, Jan. 26 at 3:45 pm, to express their views. The new plans, he said, now include a smaller addition, no meeting room, no new furnishings, and much cheaper (and less durable) finish materials.
Mr. Cutler argued that the voters had approved a much different plan than the one officials now propose to spend the money on. Though it was not part of the resolution itself, Mr. Cutler also said that a new building committee should be appointed, as he feels that a town hall can be built for far less money than the present committee knows.
The resolution asked, "Should the town proceed with plans for the town hall?" In a voice vote, voters said no.