Smooth sailing at West Tisbury town meetings
Voters agree on $12 million budget
There was a lot of town business to transact in West Tisbury on Tuesday, but in less than three hours moderator Patrick Gregory led voters expeditiously through a 41-article annual warrant and five more articles on a special town meeting warrant. In contrast to the contentious town meetings of recent months, the 218 voters (10.5 percent of those registered) were often of one mind, voting unanimously or nearly unanimously on most questions, including the $12-million budget.
[West Tisbury voters go to the polls today. Election results will be available at mvtimes.com]
There were questions answered and confusions cleared up throughout the evening, but the only articles that produced extended debate were a proposal to ban advertising signs on the triangle at the end of the Edgartown Road, where there is a veterans memorial, the taking by eminent domain of Old Stage Road, and a citizens' petition to ban persons from holding more than one of seven elected positions.
The town hall project
The ill-fated town hall restoration project, which has cost the town more than a quarter of a million dollars to date, was quickly and finally laid to rest. With a minimum of discussion, voters first rejected a request for $36,000 to find out the cost of a drastically scaled-down version of the plans, despite a plea from Stephen Berlucchi, a recent addition to the town hall building committee and also the county engineer, who thought knowing that price would help planners discuss other options. Late in the evening, voters approved a citizens' petition, brought by former selectman John Alley, to rescind their $3.7-million appropriation of October 2004, less money already spent.
A third option, to give the building to a non-profit organization and lease it back, was taken off the table when Richard Knabel asked that his petition for that scheme be postponed indefinitely. Mr. Knabel reported that the Preservation Trust, the most likely partner, is not interested in the plan. At the West Tisbury selectmen's meeting last week, Christopher Scott, executive director of the Preservation Trust, told the selectmen that the trust would be interested in the building only if the town were to move town offices elsewhere.
In effect, voters went back to square one on the town hall problem. Earlier in the evening, even before the final stake was driven into the heart of the current project, voters had approved the first steps of a town-wide evaluation of all town properties and department needs, not just town offices but also police, fire, park and rec, and schools. Voters authorized the selectmen to appoint a new volunteer committee and voted it $5,000 for expenses. A handout from the capital improvements planning committee described the scope of the work: soliciting citizens' opinions, studying other towns, consolidating data from previous studies, inventorying town properties, producing a long-term debt schedule, and identifying sources of funding. The new committee is to report in the fall and, if voters approve their recommendations, prepare an RFP for a consultant to expand and continue the work.
Banning holding multiple
A citizens' proposal brought by Jonathan Revere asked the town to adopt a bylaw similar to one in effect in Chilmark which prohibits a person from holding a seat on more than one of the following: board of selectmen, board of assessors, board of health, planning board, zoning board of appeals, finance committee, and school committee.
Town counsel Ronald Rappaport commented that he had consulted with the state Attorney General and with a counsel in the office of the Secretary of State. Because the proposed bylaw could oust an elected official, Mr. Rappaport and his contacts are of the opinion that it violates Massachusetts law. While it is possible to prohibit holding multiple offices, he commented, citing a case in which courts upheld such a bylaw in Tisbury, the article as written would be rejected by the Attorney General. When Mr. Revere pointed out that the Chilmark bylaw had been approved by the Attorney General in 1987, Mr. Rappaport replied that the present Attorney General is of a different opinion.
However, the fate of the proposal did not hinge on the legality of its wording but on its intent. Mr. Revere, along with candidate for selectman James Alley and those who agreed with them, argued that the bylaw would encourage more participation in town government, that citizens new to the political wars are reluctant to run against opponents who are well-known because they already hold office. Opponents of the proposal argued that the bylaw would limit their choices as voters. Prudy Burt said, "You'll infringe on my voting rights." Patrick Phear, noting that he is an immigrant from a place with less freedom at the polls, urged the meeting not to give up future votes based on one vote that evening.
The article failed on a voice vote.
Old Stage Road
Voters approved accepting the layout of Old Stage Road (the road to the dump) and the taking of the same road by eminent domain. The finance committee had deadlocked on recommending the action, and Sharon Estrella, FinCom chairman, commented that her objections were procedural. Abutters were not notified in a timely way, she said. However, selectman Jeffrey "Skipper" Manter pointed out that no abutters objected at the public hearing held two weeks ago.
Some voters, including Ms. Estrella, objected to eminent domain proceedings generally, saying that it seemed unnecessarily unfriendly.
Asked if it were likely that an abutter might sue for damages, town counsel Rappaport commented that, while it is always possible for a person to sue, the town's taking of the road is actually considered a "betterment" of the abutters' property, and no cash payment is required.
Signs at the veterans' memorial
The most spirited debate and the closest vote of the evening came over a proposal brought by the planning board to ban advertising signs at the triangle at the corner of State Road and the Edgartown Road, across from Parsonage Pond. A current bylaw permits off-site advertising signs only with the permission of the selectmen, but the proposal would amend that section to prohibit that particular location.
Murray Frank, chairman of the planning board, reported that the planning board proposed the ban because of complaints from individuals and from the historic district commission that the signs are disrespectful to the memorial to veterans of the World Wars, which occupies the triangle. Nancy Dole of the commission supported the proposal. Three veterans named on the monument still live in town.
Opponents of the measure argued that the signs are important in showing visitors the way to the farmers' market and the artisans' fair, as well as to the agricultural fair. Former selectman John Alley pointed out that the selectmen required the original farmers' markets to place directional signs at the triangle.
The debate went back and forth for some time, prompting Lisa Amols to say that both sides had such good arguments that she found herself agreeing with whoever last spoke.
The article, which required a two-thirds majority, passed 104 to 40. About a third of those present did not vote, perhaps unable to make up their minds.
Making up their minds was not difficult for voters on most of the issues. Passed with little or no debate and by unanimous or near-unanimous votes were separate appropriations for the assessors ($15,000 and $24,000), paths by the roads ($20,000), the estuaries project ($13,750), highways ($49,690, to be reimbursed by the state), the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority ($30,377), repairs to the police station ($10,000), painting the Howes House trim ($18,000), the drug task force ($2,500), a 4WD police cruiser ($32,000), police department computer hardware and software ($5,200), the FY06 audit ($11,000), a new hydraulic rescue tool, such as the "Jaws of Life" ($40,000), and improvements to the local refuse and recycling station ($50,000).
The town meeting also approved the creation of an affordable housing trust fund to hold money gained from the sale of affordable lots for use by the affordable housing committee in developing more affordable lots. Voters also created a new fund for a future ambulance replacement, and put $16,500 in it.
After a brief debate, the town approved starting to bill for ambulance runs by the Tri-Town Ambulance, providing Chilmark and Aquinnah also approve. Selectman John Early explained that this is an effort to recover money from the insurance companies of victims who are covered by insurance. No one, he said, will be denied service and persons without insurance will not be billed.
Voters also unanimously approved routine and required actions, including several internal fund transfers and redirections, and with few dissenting votes approved raising the police department's call-out stipend from $45 to $60, in line with Chilmark and Aquinnah, and a 4 percent wage adjustment for all town employees.
A potentially contentious and time-consuming debate on a change in the zoning bylaw was avoided when the article was withdrawn for lack of approval by the planning board. It may be brought back to a future town meeting after public hearings are held.
The last item of business was the creation of the honorary and unpaid position of West Tisbury poet laureate. Cynthia Riggs, daughter of long-time unofficial laureate Dionis Riggs and the proponent of the article, told the meeting that only one other town in Massachusetts, Provincetown, has a laureate. Not trusting the philistines on the board of selectmen to make the choice, the voters amended Ms. Riggs's petition to ask the selectmen to appoint a committee to name someone to the post.