Commissioners give manager the nod
In a special meeting with the Dukes County commissioners last week, county manager Winn Davis provided a detailed timeline of his decision to apply for federal disaster relief funds for Norton Point Beach.
Mr. Davis was roundly criticized by residents and Edgartown officials for applying for money to dredge to fill the cut created in the beach by the big storm in mid-April.
The Wednesday meeting was the first formal get-together between Mr. Davis and the seven commissioners, who are elected. Beyond a few mild rebukes for a lack of communication with town officials, the county commissioners generally supported their county manager's actions.
The commissioners agreed to focus on working with Edgartown officials and The Trustees of the Reservations (TTOR), the conservation organization that manages the county-owned beach, to provide public safety for beachgoers, boaters, and fishermen at Norton Point Beach and to ensure an emergency exit plan for Chappaquiddick residents.
Mr. Davis began the meeting with a prepared statement he read to the commissioners. He said he had to act quickly in order to meet a 3 pm deadline set by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association (MEMA).
Mr. Davis, who is paid an annual salary of $79,194 per year, invoked his statutory authority. "In sum, I'd like to say that as chief executive officer, under the charter and under the state statute, I am tasked with the responsibility of protecting the assets of the county." he said. "It is my firm belief that identifying this loss to the federal government and the state government and making sure that the county has the opportunity to file for claims was very appropriate and my responsibility."
He added, "And if I had not done it, I think I would have been subject to a great deal of criticism for not keeping that option open."
A fierce coastal storm on the weekend of April 14 caused a breach in Norton Point Beach, a two-and-a-half mile long strip of barrier beach that links Katama to Chappaquiddick. The state had to meet a minimum of $7.7 million in storm damage to qualify for Federal disaster relief funds. Dukes County's minimum was $45,000, Mr. Davis said.
Last Thursday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick asked President George Bush to declare a disaster and authorize financial assistance for cities and towns in eight counties, including Dukes County.
If the Bush administration approves the request, Dukes County will have to file a request for its share, with actual reimbursement tied to the cost of a specific project.
In a preliminary damage assessment (PDA) report Mr. Davis filed with MEMA, he requested funds for $51,000 for an emergency exit road for 375 Chappaquiddick homes; $450,000 to dredge and fill 75,000 cubic yards; and $10,000 to restore federally protected bird nesting areas.
When they learned of Mr. Davis's proposed plans days later, Edgartown officials and TTOR said the Norton Point breach was not an emergency or a disaster, but rather act of nature that has occurred at the barrier beach many times over the years.
At last week's meeting, Mr. Davis said he applied for the funds to keep the county's options open, which he said included filling the breach, installing culverts, and building a bridge - or doing nothing.
"So I know that the press has made a big thing out of this, that somehow we're going to go in there and refill the breach - that's not our proposal," Mr. Davis said. "All we've done is identify the cost of what we lost - we have reserved the right to go and apply for money, if we want, and now we have the time to have that discussion. And through that discussion, I'm sure the correct decision will be reached, and if that decision requires funding, the funds will be there. If we had the discussion afterwards, with no funds, it would be a waste of time."
Several commissioners chided Mr. Davis for his failure to contact and seek input from them and other Island officials. "That's what the county, at times, lacks, is communication," said commissioner Roger Wey of Oak Bluffs, who is also an Oak Bluffs selectman.
Mr. Davis said he notified the county commissioners by e-mail and either e-mailed or left voice messages for several Edgartown officials. But commissioner Tristan Israel of Tisbury, who is also a Tisbury selectman, said that in the future, he would prefer a phone call on any urgent matter, not an e-mail.
"I understand going for the money and getting on the list - I don't have a problem with that," said county commission vice chairman Les Leland of West Tisbury. "I have a problem with how it came about, and not following the process that is in place for good government, and that bothers me a lot. First, you need to consult your bosses."
County commission chairman Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs, who said last week he had conferred with Mr. Davis about his decision, offered no comments about Mr. Davis's actions.
There was also support for Mr. Davis. Commissioners John Alley of West Tisbury and Lenny Jason of Chilmark said they thought Mr. Davis was doing his job as expected. "I think what you did was the right course of action," said Mr. Jason. "The object was to get into the game, ante up, and that's what you did."
Commissioner Carlene Gatting of Edgartown suggested the group move past the process and on to more substantive issues. "I see the purpose of this meeting to make it clear to the public that it's not our intention at this point to barge out millions of tons of sand or to build a bridge or to do any of those things," she said. "But at least maybe we're going to have some funds and have some options."
During the public comment session, Ted Stanley, a member of the Dukes County Charter Commission, challenged the commissioners, "What would you do if you didn't have the money? I'm just wondering if this isn't a governmental boondoggle of some kind, in that there's money available, so let's go grab it."
"The answer's no," countered Ms. Gatting. "We don't think it's a governmental boondoggle. There are legitimate escape route issues from Chappaquiddick that need to be addressed, and I think we have a responsibility to do that. If there are funds to help us do that and perhaps assist in safety planning or alternative routes or something to do with the Chappy ferry, then I think we'll welcome those funds and pick what we pay for."
The commissioners agreed the next step will be a dialogue about public safety issues with TTOR and Edgartown officials, including the selectmen, police, and harbormaster, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard.