West Tisbury elections: Skipper Manter faces tough re-election
For some weeks now, Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter, chairman of the West Tisbury selectmen, has been reminding folks that he is running for re-election. The reminders are jocular, but Mr. Manter, 48, is serious about a second term on the board.
Mr. Manter, who is a sergeant on the town police force and a volunteer EMT, also holds other elected and appointed positions in town. He points with pride to his years of public service. "Whatever board I sit on, whether or not my choices have been popular, I truly think I have the best interests of the town in mind."
Mr. Manter sees the escalating expense of running the town as the major challenge of the future. In addition to the deteriorating town hall, he mentioned the need for a library expansion and a new police facility. "These are expensive items that need to be done," he said. "And the continuing uptick of our tax bill has everybody concerned, as the cost of just doing business in town continues to increase. The working people are really having an issue with that."
Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Indeed, it has been a controversial year, and the selectmen have been under fire for the escalating costs of the town hall renovation project, legal bills incurred in violation of state laws governing municipal finance practice, and the unsuccessful proposal, secret until just before town meeting last April, to purchase a house on Old Stage Road.
The town hall
Mr. Manter, along with the other two selectmen, was a member of the town hall building committee which recommended the original $3.7-million renovation project approved by the voters in October 2004, and which also recommended last November that the town spend an additional $1.8 million when the first estimate turned out to be too low. (The town rejected the additional money.) When a special town meeting on Jan. 17 resolved not to continue even with a stripped-down version of the plan, Mr. Manter changed course. He agreed with Mr. Early's vote not to spend any more money on the down-sized plan until voters had a chance to approve or disapprove it. And he returned from a recent vacation to propose that the town explore giving the building to the Preservation Trust (or a similar organization) and leasing it back. Although John Early and Glenn Hearn declined to place Mr. Manter's proposal as a selectmen's article on the warrant for the annual town meeting, voters will have a chance to vote on an identical warrant article proposed by citizens' petition.
Mr. Manter still believes that the present town hall is the place for town offices. "In my heart I'd like to see the town hall there, and I'd like to see the plans used that we've already worked so hard on and the town agreed to." If that can't be done, Mr. Manter thinks "plan B" should be the proposed town-wide analysis of facilities and program needs.
The Graham case
Those who agree with the assessors in their defense of a suit against the town brought before the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board (ATB) by William Graham mostly endorse Mr. Manter's firm defense of the assessors and his call to be patient and wait for an ATB ruling. Those who think that the assessors were at fault may prefer selectman Hearn, who urged that the selectmen step in and try to satisfy Mr. Graham's demand for an investigation of the board of assessors (Mr. Manter and Mr. Early voted no).
However voters feel about the Graham case, many are disappointed that the selectmen approved spending for the town's defense without a town meeting appropriation and without sufficient oversight of the bills. Mr. Manter, as chairman of the selectman and a member of the finance committee (FinCom), has taken some of the heat for that. The selectmen have negotiated the bills downward and reversed the past practices that led to the mistake, but their errors provoked acrimonious debate, and paying the bulk of the bills required two contentious special town meetings.
If the ATB rules in favor of Mr. Graham, should the town appeal? "If the decision comes down in favor of Mr. Graham, I certainly wouldn't support an appeal," Mr. Manter replied. "We need to abide by whatever comes down - whether we need to reevaluate the whole town, or just the waterfront properties, or whatever.... I don't think the town would stomach an appeal. They wouldn't appropriate the funds."
But if the ATB rules in favor of the town and Mr. Graham appeals, Mr. Manter would support asking the town for funds to contest the appeal. Since the appeals court would only review the ATB materials, not take any new testimony, the cost to the town would be minimal, compared to the original ATB hearings.
Too many hats?
Mr. Manter has been criticized for wearing too many hats.
A citizens' petition, perhaps with Mr. Manter in mind, has placed an article on the town meeting warrant to limit elected public service to one of the following: board of selectmen, board of assessors, board of health, the FinCom, and the up-Island regional school committee. In addition to being a selectman, Mr. Manter is a member of the FinCom and the school committee. Not surprisingly, he is opposed to the proposed limitations.
Mr. Manter argues, "All the hats I wear were given to me by the voters. They certainly knew I was on the finance committee and the school committee when they elected me to the board of selectmen three years ago. And they knew I was on those boards when they reelected me to the finance committee after my first year on the board of selectmen. Eight years ago they knew I was chairman of the school committee when they elected me to the finance committee.
"It's a part, to me, of the democratic process. Anybody can take out papers, get 20 signatures, and get on the ballot. People can either choose to [vote for a candidate] or not choose. But I don't think we should be restricting the people's choices. If you think [office holders] aren't doing a good job or maybe doing more than one job they shouldn't do, then you can exercise your right by voting at the ballot box."
Mr. Manter went on to point out that, except for selectman, there have not often been contested elections in West Tisbury. "A few years ago there were two open seats on the finance committee, and nobody even bothered to submit papers. Recently we advertised for [the selectmen-appointed] seat on the Martha's Vineyard Commission - a very important job - and the first time around nobody applied."
Mr. Manter claims that much of his public service came about when no one else wanted the jobs. "It isn't like I was trying to grab all these spot-lights," he said. "I stepped in when nobody else wanted to serve."
When he first ran for the finance committee, he said, he ran as a write-in, because there were no candidates on the ballot. When he first ran for the school committee, there were five candidates, including himself, for the five spots. And when he was appointed to the up-Island council on aging, he took a spot that no one else had applied for.
As for the proposed limitation, Mr. Manter concluded, "If people want to do that, they can, but there's no guarantee that's going to create more interest [in town government].
An article in Robert Potts's weekly commentary, the Broadside, quoted from the warrant article that established the FinCom in 1977. The excerpt said that no member of the new nine-member committee could be an elected official of the town. Mr. Manter told The Times that the matter has come up twice before, once when he first ran for the FinCom and again when he ran for the school committee. He said that town counsel at the time gave a verbal opinion that the prohibition applied only to the initial appointees to the FinCom, not to those subsequently elected, who are described in a later section of the bylaw. However, Mr. Manter said that he does not plan to run for reelection to the FinCom when his term is up in 2007.