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Oak Bluffs selectmen

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Citing the dramatic turnaround in town fortunes since Robert Whritenour took office, the board unanimously approved a pay hike.

Citing his exemplary performance since 2012, Oak Bluffs selectmen voted unanimously to give town administrator Robert Whritenour a raise. – File photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour will have a little extra money to spend on Christmas presents this holiday season. Meeting in executive session following their October 28 meeting, selectmen held a performance review and followed it up with a unanimous vote to give the town administrator a three percent step increase effective immediately this fiscal year and next.

The raise was announced at Tuesday night’s regular meeting by chairman Greg Coogan. “It’s well deserved and overdue,“ he said.

Speaking with The Times earlier on Tuesday, Mr. Coogan was more expansive about the reasons for the raise. “He’s done so many things in a positive way for the town,” he said. “He’s very responsive to the board’s wishes. He’s put us in a great financial position. He’s made it an inclusive style working with the members of the finance committee, he’s making solid plans for the future with the capital improvement committee, and we’re going in a very positive direction so we can take proactive steps in improving the town infrastructure.”

Mr. Coogan also said that Mr. Whritenour has shown exemplary dedication to the town. “Bob puts himself through a lot on a daily basis with his travel,” he said, referring to Mr. Whritenour’s daily commute from Falmouth. “We know he sacrifices a lot to come to the Island and we know he’s developed a real love for Oak Bluffs, not just for the people but also for the uniqueness of Oak Bluffs.”

“We got Bob at a bargain price and he clearly earned his keep,” selectman Walter Vail told The Times on Tuesday before that night’s meeting. “It was the only fair thing to do. I hope somewhere down the road, before his contract runs out, that we can put in place a reasonable extension on it. I think the rest of the board would agree with me.”

Reached by phone, selectman Gail Barmakian had no comment on the raise.

Mr. Whritenour was named town administrator in February 2012. His current contract, which expires in 2017, called for him to receive $128,051 in FY 2014, which ends June 30, 2015.

“I’m very appreciative of the board’s action,” Mr. Whritenour told The Times on Wednesday. “I was quite moved actually. I didn’t request a raise. I’m very happy to be working for this town.”

Mr. Whritenour said a provision of his contract requires the selectmen to make an annual evaluation. While his three evaluations have been positive, Mr. Whritenour, citing hard financial times, said he had not requested or received any step increases, which according to his contract, can be roughly three percent a year with a favorable board review. “I didn’t put it in the budget because things have been so tight and the focus has been on the health of the town’s finances,” he said.

Mr. Whritenour said that selectmen based this fiscal year’s step increase on last year’s evaluation and next year’s step increase on this year’s evaluation.

Formerly Falmouth’s town manager, Mr. Whritenour was named interim town administrator in September 2011 and he’s been widely credited for bringing stability to town finances that were in disarray at the time.

Mr. Whritenour’s interim contract called for him to work for 13 weeks, at a salary of $1,731 per week, representing an annual rate of $90,000.

At the time, the town had been without an administrator since August 1 and was still reeling following a series of missteps that included a botched election and a reprimand from the state attorney general’s office over bidding and procurement practices.

Mr. Whritenour said the Oak Bluffs job was a substantial pay cut from his previous job as Falmouth town administrator, “But I didn’t come out here for the money,” he said. “I came to contribute to the community and I work hard at it and I enjoy it. I love the Island and I love the community and I want to continue to do a good job.”

Executive session explained
Mr. Coogan said there was no particular reason for the timing of the pay increase, rather a long succession of positive developments in the town. “We have had a lot of positive feedback about Bob for a long time, both when Kathy [Burton] was chair and when Walter [Vail] was chair. I believe his contract mentions looking at step increases and we hadn’t offered any in the last several years and we felt we had been a little bit late in rewarding him. It had nothing to do with anything other than he’s doing a great job  We feel this is the right thing to do.”

According to the agenda of the October 28 meeting, the reason for the executive session was  “To conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations, or contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.” The minutes of the executive session have not yet been released.

“The intention was to have a frank discussion without any outside pressures. We just wanted to make sure we were all on the same page,” Mr. Coogan explained.

“When you’re talking about someone’s salary, that’s an executive session topic, or when you’re talking contracts, which we did not change,” Mr. Vail said. “Because we were beginning the work on our FY 16 budget, we wanted to make sure it did not get missed by the selectmen, because Bob wasn’t going to do it on his own, we know that.”

“Under the law, it’s standard practice to go into executive session to talk about contractual issues,” Mr. Whritenour said Wednesday. “I think that’s why the board chose to go into executive session. I really didn’t have a preference.”

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Citing issues that surfaced at an Island-wide meeting with state officials, the board amends official comment on 2014 ocean plan.

Yellow areas have been identified as possible locations for sand mining in Massachusetts waters. The areas outlined in purple are located in federal waters. – Photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management

Massachusetts is the only state on the east coast that bans offshore sand mining. But the recently released  206-page 2014 Ocean Management Plan (OMP), compiled by the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management (CZM), proposes the formation of up to nine offshore sand mining pilot projects. Since the report was released, Oak Bluffs officials have been staunch advocates of offshore sand mining. In a letter to CZM dated October 22, Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour, on behalf of the board of selectmen, wrote, “It has become clear to us that without the availability of offshore sand resources, [Oak Bluffs] will be unable to preserve our coastal resources. The town strongly supports the use of sand mining in Massachusetts.”

At their regular meeting on Tuesday night, however, selectmen reconsidered their position. Responding to information presented at last week’s public meeting with CZM officials and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the board agreed that offshore sand mining was a more complex solution than previously thought, and that a more measured response to the CZM was in order.
“We all went to the commission meeting, and we heard a slightly different discussion than we anticipated,” chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan said.

Warren Doty, a Chilmark selectman and the founding president of two fishermen’s organizations, was on hand to speak against sand mining. “Every time you collect sand, you’re disturbing the benthic environment, which is six inches of sand and mud and dirt at the bottom and is the base of the food chain,” he said. “In Nantucket Sound, the major fishery is conch (channel whelks). There are two million pounds of channel whelk landed in Martha’s Vineyard in 2014 and the price is over $2 a pound. Something in the neighborhood of $4 million is coming into this fishery. It is the most profitable fishery on the Island, and it’s very sensitive to changes in the sea bottom.”

Mr. Doty said sand mining in Vineyard sound would likewise jeopardize the winter flounder population.
“The issue is not just supporting sand mining itself,” selectman Gail Barmakian said. “We want all the sand we can possibly get, but not at the cost of our fisheries. We don’t live in a vacuum here. We have to do a cost-benefit analysis. They say Rhode Island is successfully balancing both sides of the issue, but there hasn’t been any track record with long-term data.”
“This is an exceptionally complex issue,” conservation commissioner Joan Hughes said. “We need to deal with hard science and good statistics and find out how we can solve problems for both. Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey have done this. There’s a lot of very good science out there.”

Shellfish constable David Grunden said that the state would rigorously monitor the pilot projects to minimize environmental damage and that ultimately the town has to take substantive action, especially given its northeastern exposure. “If Oak Bluffs didn’t have infrastructure that was so exposed, especially during northeasters, I would probably be on the other side of this, but I’m all in favor of it,” he said. “Our low-lying roads are in peril. It’s even worse when you factor in climate change and sea level rise. The town must insist that the state allow [sand mining] to protect the town infrastructure. It’s not going to be cheap, but there’s no cheap way to protect the town from the northeast exposure.”

Mr. Grunden showed the selectmen a map that indicated the closest potential sand mining site to Oak Bluffs was three miles offshore. Selectman Michael Santoro asked why sand could not be mined closer to shore, where it has been clearly building up for years. “It’s very difficult when you get involved in these projects because a lot of the common sense solutions are not acceptable,” Ms. Hughes said.  “We asked about this, but the Army Corps of Engineers refused.”
Mr. Grunden added that mining sand closer to shore can be counterproductive, as a mass of sand near the shore can help impede wave energy during storms. Moving that sand would remove that benefit.

Speaking as a selectman, Mr. Doty said the town of Chilmark is particularly opposed to mining between the north shore and Cuttyhunk. “The idea that we’ll stand on Menemsha beach and see a 150-foot barge take sand to Hyannis is not acceptable.” he said.
“I don’t think any of us want to see a big operation that could supply Hyannis,” Ms. Barmakian said.

The revised letter from the selectmen will be sent to the CMZ once the 60-day public comment period on (OMP) ends at 5 pm on Tuesday, November 25.
The ocean plan draft is available online at the EEA website, mass.gov/eea/. Comments can be emailed to oceanplan@state.ma.us.

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Funding approval for clearing the little bridge channel appears imminent, but other projects face further scrutiny.

FEMA officials are expected to fund dredging the north channel into Sengekontacket Pond. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Town administrator Robert Whritenour presented Oak Bluffs selectmen with a good news/bad news update on the status of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for Hurricane Sandy repairs at their regular meeting on Tuesday night.

“We’ve received verbal determination that the Little Bridge dredging project meets the public benefit threshold,” Mr. Whritenour said. “One big change: we can’t use it for beach nourishment at Inkwell and Pay Beach.”

Little Bridge crosses one of two channels that connect Sengekontacket Pond to Nantucket Sound. The two popular public beaches are approximately one mile north of the dredging site.

Mr. Whritenour said that FEMA guidelines for dredging funds require the most cost-effective disposal of the dredge spoils, which in this case means depositing the material on State Beach. He added that when the formal written approval comes through as expected, the dredging contractor can do the work within 30 days.

Selectman Walter Vail noted that FEMA will only cover 75 percent of the project and asked how the town would cover the remaining 25 percent. Mr. Whritenour said the town dredge account would cover the balance. The work will be done in October or November, if all goes as planned.

While things are looking up for Sengie, the funding forecast for another project under FEMA review, the reconstruction of the North Bluff, is not as promising.

In an August 22 letter to Robert Grimley, FEMA region 1 disaster recovery manager, Mr. Whritenour wrote, “The second critically time-sensitive project is the reconstruction of the North Bluff seawall that has been degraded to very poor condition as a result of Hurricane Sandy. In its current condition this seawall is no longer capable of protecting the adjacent coastal bank or the public roadway and we shudder to contemplate the risk of failure we face in the next major coastal storm.”

Mr. Whritenour also provided FEMA with an August 21 memo from CLE engineering consultant Carlos Pena, who wrote that the seawall, which was built in 1940 with inferior cement, “has a strong risk of failure during a major coastal storm” and needs to be completely rebuilt. FEMA officials has so far maintained that the less expensive option of reinforcing the existing wall can adequately protect the town. The North Bluff seawall runs from Oak Bluffs harbor entrance to the Steamship Authority terminal.

Other projects for which the town has applied to FEMA for Hurricane Sandy funding include repairs to Sea View Avenue bulkhead, restoration of beaches and jetties at Pay Beach, Jetty Beach, and the Inkwell, and East Chop bluff restoration. Mr. Whritenour suggested that the town consider appropriating funds for additional engineering studies on East Chop bluff, since they can be used to apply for funding from other state and federal agencies in the event FEMA does not award hurricane Sandy funding, which seems more likely in his estimation.

Cheers and jeers
In other business, the selectmen gave patrons of The Ritz Cafe something to celebrate with a unanimous vote to officially transfer the year-round, all-alcohol liquor license from Janet King, former co-owner of the Ritz for 31 years, to Joseph L. Stallings, president of BB&L management. The bequeathment was presided over by attorney Howard West.

Eastville Beach seasonal residents were again out in force to fight the proposed oyster farm that received preliminary approval from the selectmen in March after the proposal garnered the unanimous support of the shellfish committee and shellfish constable David Grunden. Chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan told those assembled that the fate of the aquaculture project currently rests with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), and selectmen cannot act until that decision is made. Mr. Coogan assured the concerned residents that the board was taking in both sides of the debate, and he showed a thick stack of letters to that effect.

Selectman Gail Barmakian said a recent site visit to Eastville Beach gave her a better understanding of the group’s concerns. Eastville residents also asked for improved communication from the town during the off-season, including email blasts on upcoming decisions. Mr. Whritenour said that tailoring emails to specific groups is a large undertaking and is not in the town budget. He added that all taxpayers in Oak Bluffs can keep abreast of developments by checking the town website. Selectman Michael Santoro said that improving the town’s Internet infrastructure and social media is a high priority for the capital committee in the coming months.

Mr. Whritenour informed the selectmen that for the town to maximize insurance benefits to cover repairs to the fire damaged transfer station, a declaration of emergency had to be passed. Selectmen endorsed the move unanimously.

Selectmen also unanimously endorsed the appointment of Jennifer Parkinson to the Council on Aging board of directors. “I think she’ll be a great asset to the council,” selectman Kathy Burton said. “I’m sure she’ll bring some great ideas.”

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Dredge materials were deposited on Inkwell Beach in mid-March with assurances that the sand would bleach out. — File photo by Steve Myrick

Making his second appearance before the selectmen, Phil daRosa of Oak Bluffs won approval by a four to one vote to stage a music and arts festival, “Music on the Rock,” at Waban Park on Saturday, July 12. Selectmen conditioned the vote on approval by the parks commission and the Oak Bluffs police department.

Mr. daRosa said “Music on the Rock” will be a family friendly event, with a diverse roster of bands that will appeal to all ages. He also said the festival will also be a venue where local artists can show their work and where local victualers can sell their food and drink. The event is scheduled to run from 3 to 9 pm.

Mr. daRosa first proposed the festival to the selectmen at their regular meeting on March 25. A majority of selectmen thought his plan lacked logistical details and that it was too late in the year to plan a large outdoor event in July. Selectmen encouraged Mr. daRosa to chose a later date, possibly in September. Mr. daRosa said he chose the July 12 date because there’s typically a swoon in business on the Island the weekend after the fourth of July and that a September date would exclude summer visitors and college students who are integral to the festival’s success.

Police Chief Erik Blake told the selectmen that if Mr. daRosa limited the number of tickets to 3,000, he was confident a detail of 10 officers could effectively handle security. Mr. daRosa promised to work closely with the chief in the coming months to address fencing, neighborhood impact, and parking issues. He had previously agreed to pay the police detail in full before the event.

Selectman Walter Vail questioned his experience to pull off the event successfully. Mr. daRosa, former entertainment director at Dreamland and Flatbread and a musician with Vineyard-based Dukes County Love Affair, said he had organized two successful outdoor events in Chilmark last summer and he would be working in conjunction with San Miguel Sound, a production company that has produced festivals nationwide and recently staged a successful outdoor event in Mexico with three months planning time.

“I agree, there’s a lull in July,” selectman Kathy Burton said. “The time frame of 3 to 9 pm is reasonable. Tell me about the fence.” The ensuing discussion made it clear that the type of fencing required might remain a sticking point.

Selectman Gail Barmakian expressed repeated concerns about parking and the impact on the neighborhood of a 3,000 person event at Waban Park. She suggested that Mr. daRosa consider another location.

Dennis daRosa, Mr. daRosa’s father and an Oak Bluffs businessman, countered that there were events at the Tabernacle last summer that drew over 2,000 and parking was not an issue. “When I was a kid there were circuses in Waban Park,” he said. “I think saying parking is going to be a nightmare is a fallacy. You’re using it as a red herring to mitigate something you don’t want to happen.”

Selectman Greg Coogan was vocal in his support. “I think it’s a great idea,” he said. “I think Waban Park is extremely underused. Bringing culture to the town is a great idea. A lot of this makes sense to me. You should go for the [3,000 person] cap and we should use the park once in a while.”

Ms. Burton made a motion to approve the festival with a cap of 3,000 tickets, and pending park department and police department approval. “Go forth and be successful, son,” Mr. Coogan said.

Ms. Barmakian said she supported the idea in spirit but felt compelled to cast a dissenting vote because of Mr. daRosa’s lack of planning so close to the event.

In other business, outgoing chairman Walter Vail nominated Michael Santoro to fill the seat. Mr. Santoro declined the honor and said he preferred to stay on as vice-chairman due to his extensive business and family commitments. Mr. Vail then nominated Mr. Coogan, who accepted — after a pregnant pause. Ms. Barmakian registered displeasure that she was not considered for the chairmanship and pointedly asked Mr. Vail about his decision making process. Mr. Vail declined to comment. The selectmen approved Mr. Coogan’s nomination with a unanimous vote.

The meeting concluded on a sobering note when seasonal resident Richard Seelig showed the selectmen a sample of the soil that was dredged from the entrance of Lagoon Pond and deposited at the Inkwell Beach. The dredged material, black in color and clay-like in texture also contained various rusted metal objects. The sand substitute has been a concern to many townspeople and it set off a storm of protest on social media in March. Assurances were made by government officials that the dredged material would bleach out by summer. Mr. Seelig’s presentation made it clear that in addition to aesthetic concerns, there were valid safety concerns about the dredge. “This will never bleach out,” Mr. Seelig said, holding up a rusted welding rod.