Chilmark board departs from slip rental rules
Spurning advice offered by selectman J. B. Riggs Parker, fellow selectmen Warren Doty and Frank Fenner departed Tuesday from a policy the three selectmen had established to award the use of a Menemsha boat slip to lifelong town resident Robin Smith, a 20-year slip tenant. Ms. Smith had not sent in her signed lease and payment for the slip by the Jan. 15 deadline, so her slip had been awarded to the next boat owner on the town's waiting list.
The decision by the two selectmen to abandon the rules led to the abrupt departure from the meeting of harbormaster Dennis Jason and a request, made later by Mr. Parker, to be relieved of his duty as board liaison to the mooring assignment committee, in light of the vote and because, he said, "I'm not good at giving special treatment."
The vote followed an emotional and sometimes acrimonious discussion among supporters of Ms. Smith and town and harbor officials who supported the regulations. Mr. Jason walked out after he saw how the vote was going.
Mr. Parker cast the dissenting vote on the matter, steadfast in his support of Mr. Jason and in what he described as his belief that to reinstate the slip would be giving discretionary treatment to one individual in contradiction of the harbor policies.
"I feel strongly that once we put discretion back in this system, we've lost it," he said. "We give reminders at every chance... We shouldn't have a double standard, and we should be fair to the waiting list people."
Mr. Fenner, who moved to depart from the policy, said the fault was in the policy for not giving a slip holder a chance to respond before the slip is given to the next person on the waiting list.
"This woman deserves her slip. She should have been given a notice," Mr. Fenner said. He said it would have taken a short time for the harbormaster to call or send a registered letter. "I feel there's a real loophole here. We're trying to be a friendly community."
Mr. Fenner commended Mr. Jason on what he has accomplished in the harbor, saying, "It's never been more tightly run, fair and transparent," but he added it could also be compassionate to everyone involved.
Selectman Warren Doty offered little comment during the discussion, but said after his affirmative vote, "I don't think it destroys the rules of the harbormaster or challenges his authority." He recommended the board pursue changing the slip policy to allow a second notice to slip holders who don't send in their renewals on time.
The boat slip policy requires that annual slip leases and payments must be returned to the harbormaster by noon on Jan. 15, to obtain or renew a slip lease.
Ms. Smith was not at the meeting because she is out of the country, but her brother, Hollis Smith, read a letter she wrote to the selectmen. She said she did not know until June 18 that she had lost her boat slip of 20 years on the floating dock. She said she thought she had sent the check in November, but Mr. Jason did not receive it.
Saying she usually gets a notice, Ms. Smith, who is a teacher in town, said a phone call or written notice would have cleared up the matter. Several boat owners and fishermen who spoke up for Ms. Smith also said she should have received a phone call or letter.
"This is not a friendly regulation. It's not Chilmark. It's mean," resident Edward "Spider" Andresen said. "A phone call is common decency."
Speaking several times in defense of the policy, Mr. Jason said, "We follow the rules and regulations... If we make calls, do we have to make them to everyone? When do we make them - on Jan. 15 or before?" He said of the 295 boat slip and mooring applicants, 15 people did not respond this year to the lease notices sent in November.
Mr. Jason said the lease document clearly states the deadline for returning the lease. "How do you justify 'I just forgot about it?'"
He said it has taken five years to get the mooring and slip lists to where they are reasonably accurate and fairly managed. The lists are posted on the town web site, and in addition to the lease letters, he said fliers and other notices are sent to the slip and mooring holders and people on the waiting lists. "I don't know how many times we have to send them," he said. "I don't feel I have to hold someone's hand."
Noting that he has known Ms. Smith since she was born, Mr. Jason said he is "in a difficult position." He told the selectmen that if they change the regulations, he would support them, but he asked that they make them fair for all the people on the waiting list. However, he predicted, "It's going to be the haves and have nots."
In addition to the notices posted on the town web site, Mr. Parker also agreed that all slip holders should get reminders, but he said he gives reminders at selectmen's and other town meetings. "That's the way we are fair to everybody," he said. "We've asked the harbormaster to follow the regulations. He did his job. I think we should support the harbormaster. He's subject to a lot of pressure."
Andrew Goldman, who has a boat slip on the west dock, said he is not opposed to more notices, but he said the rules shouldn't be changed after the fact - "to say you don't have to follow the rules when you made a mistake. I think it's friendly to have a transparent system."
By not sticking to the regulations, Mr. Goldman said, "you leave the harbormaster completely unprotected."
Ian Yaffe, a harbormaster assistant, also said it is not fair to change the rules midstream. He suggested the policy be amended to send a registered letter on Jan. 1 to those who did not respond to the Nov. 15 letter.
Commercial fisherman Jonathan Mayhew said he could understand how the selectmen might not let Ms. Smith have her slip back, but he asked the harbormaster to find a place for the man who got her slip, so she could have it back.
Mr. Jason said the man who got Ms. Smith's slip is handicapped, and he does not have another slip available for him. The average waiting list for a mooring is four years, he said, down from 10 years before he came on board five years ago. He said it has taken the last two to three years to educate the boaters about the policy.
"It's a hard line, but it got things moving," he said. "The plus side is it has made people more happy than unhappy."
Mr. Parker added, "We've worked hard to set up a process that's fair to everybody." He said state law requires towns to allocate permits in a fair fashion and without special treatment. "It was the discretion and special treatment for people got us in trouble in the past," he added.
Mr. Parker reminded the other selectmen that they held a one hour and 22 minute hearing on the present regulations, and they didn't find anything wrong with them. In a separate e-mailed memo to his fellow selectmen, Mr. Parker wrote, "The effort was made in order to provide complete transparency and clarity and remove 'discretionary treatment' from a system, which had all too often in the past been the focus of skepticism regarding its awarding of access to one of the town's treasured assets - a place to keep a boat - particularly from those who were waiting for that priceless privilege. I think we did our job well."
In the e-mail, sent before Tuesday's meeting and released after the meeting to the press, Mr. Parker wrote that one of the accomplishments of the new policy was the town web site posting of the 200 mooring assignments, 43 names on the mooring waiting list, 53 slip assignments and 42 slip waiting list names on the town web site. "So far as I know, this openness has never happened before in the town's history," he said. The complete text of Mr. Parker's e-mail is available here.
He also noted that the Jan. 15 deadline for collecting the lease revenue is more efficient for the town and schedules the harbor personnel's administrative chores in the winter and allows people on the waiting list more time before the summer season begins.