Oak Bluffs plans year of improvements
It's the time of year when people cross their fingers and hope for the best in the New Year. Perhaps the past 12 months were intolerable - or incredible. Either way, January offers a fresh start for individuals and towns alike.
Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton is reaching his professional stride - after six months on the job - during the first month of 2007. His goals for the town this year include finding funding for sidelined projects and keeping sprits high in an often tense town hall.
"One of the primary things is obviously keeping the morale of town employees relatively high," Mr. Dutton said in a recent interview. "I think there's a lot of good things we offer the employees and a lot of things we could be doing better, so we'll be tackling some of those things that we could be doing better."
Oak Bluffs town administrator Michael Dutton. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Mr. Dutton resigned from his post as an Oak Bluffs selectman in May, and took the post of town administrator in July. He took over for Casey Sharpe when she resigned amid a cloud of controversy over what her supporters claimed was meddling in her work by various town officials. Townspeople learned later that the selectmen fired Ms. Sharpe - a technicality that triggered a clause in her contract sweetening her severance arrangement.
While it could have been trying coming into that tumultuous atmosphere, Mr. Dutton said the mood has been lighter than expected. "I've been pleasantly surprised," he said. "Most town employees enjoy their jobs, enjoy coming to work, and I just want to keep it that way. I want to provide as comfortable and enjoyable a place to work as possible. For me, coming to work has been a pleasure, and that's largely attributed to the fact that it's a pleasure for most employees to come to work."
Mr. Dutton said though there have been few surprises associated with the job, the constant contact with town affairs has given him an alternative perspective from the one he had as a selectman.
"As a selectman you're really not, nor should you be, involved on a day-to-day basis," Mr. Dutton said. "For me it's been very interesting making the transition from elected official to appointed, because I can see the distinction much clearer now than I could before."
Mr. Dutton served as a selectman for seven years, and is wrapping up a practice as an estate-planning lawyer. He has lived on Martha's Vineyard since 1991.
As for the transition from selectman to town administrator, Mr. Dutton said the previous position helped with the latter. "It's been, for me, a good thing that I was a selectman before I did this," he said. "I think for a lot of people that wouldn't be the case, it would be a transition that might be a little more difficult. I've been very conscious not to bring my opinion with me in a very obvious way. I've tried to keep my opinions to myself and simply try to guide the selectmen where they need my guidance, and they guide me on policy things or directions that they want to go."
Looking towards 2007, there are several projects and possibilities on the town's radar, Mr. Dutton said. From large projects, such as the East Chop bluff reconstruction and the Blinker roundabout, to beach cleanup and traffic reconfiguration, funding is the main stumbling block.
"There are a lot of great ideas brewing, but as is usually the case with municipal government, all those great ideas have a price tag associated with them," Mr. Dutton said. "It's really going to be trying to find funding for those projects that have to be done, and then looking for creative ways to fund some of the other things, in ways that that aren't going to impact taxpayers."
The harbormaster's department has a list of projects lined up, the most important of which is replacing the steel portion of the bulkhead, a long-overdue project, Mr. Dutton said. Harbormaster Todd Alexander is also looking to slip in some beautification improvements, such as trees along the harbor boardwalk and replacing the worn plastic-covered power pedestals with medal ones.
Improving the crumbling infrastructure along Inkwell Beach is also near the top of the list for construction help, Mr. Dutton said. The seawall, stairway, and railing are crumbling, and the snack bar and restrooms have fallen into disrepair. A sub-committee of the Community Development Council has been formed to address these specific problems.
"Really to their credit, they've organized and created a committee that's made up of members or contacts from a lot of different town committees," Mr. Dutton said. "There's really sort of a cross-section of town boards involved in trying to come up with some solutions down there."
The most significant improvement project projected for next year is along Lake Avenue from the Steamship Authority terminal down to the harbor, including the island around the Flying Horses Carousel, Mr. Dutton said. Starting in October and stretching several months, repaving, sidewalk reconstruction, and beautification will occur in the area.
While there is a general consensus that these improvements are needed, the not-so-harmonious roundabout project at the blinker light is also on the map.
In September, the selectmen decided via a 3-1 vote to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Barnes and Vineyard Haven-Edgartown roads, a notorious intersection that once was governed by a blinking light and is now a four-way stop. Selectmen Roger Wey, Greg Coogan, and chairman Duncan Ross cited traffic safety studies and the success of roundabouts in other communities as the reason for their support, while the dissenting selectman Kerry Scott said the community was not in favor of a roundabout.
Mr. Dutton said actual construction would likely start in 2008, but planning and engineering would occur in the coming year.
"It's on the horizon," Mr. Dutton said. "But for those of us with short attention spans, it's far enough out there that we don't see it quite yet."
With site preparation and parking lot construction on the Martha's Vineyard Hospital projected to start in March, Mr. Dutton said that his and the board of selectmen's main role would be mediating between the hospital and the town residents. Several abutters have complained that during the 30 months of projected construction time, they will lose income from rental properties and accustomed peace and quiet.
"We'll continue to make every effort to be a means of communications between the neighbors or the town and the hospital," Mr. Dutton said. "I think the town recognizes the importance of having the hospital there and it's a great asset to the town, but the selectman also realize that there's going to be a substantial impact to their neighbors."