Oak Bluffs voters, on the second night, cut little; more to do May 4

On the second night of its annual town meeting on April, 14, Oak Bluffs voters cut less than $60,000 out of a proposed $24.7 million operating budget and approved all 12 Proposition 2.5 override questions, many of them restoring service and personnel cuts made by a special town meeting last fall. The next day at town elections, voters rejected all but one of those questions, leaving town departments facing more personnel and service cuts.

A total of 214 voters were officially counted at the peak of Wednesday’s session, 99 fewer than April 13, the first night of the special and annual town meetings. Attendance for the second night represents approximately 6.4 percent of the town 3,319 registered voters, down from 9.4 percent who attended Tuesday night. But, there is more to be done, and the town meeting is scheduled to resume at 7 pm, Tuesday, May 4, at the Oak Bluffs School. Thirteen warrant articles remain.

Eight of the override questions were approved as a block, without debate, in a chaotic 10-minute period at the end of the three and a half hour meeting.

After a question from the floor to allow a block vote, moderator Dave Richardson ruled unprecedented procedural change would be allowed if voted by the meeting. With dozens of voters streaming for the doors, the moderator ruled the voice vote on the procedure defeated. Many more than the seven required voters rose from their seats to demand a standing vote, but could not catch the attention of the moderator, as more voters streamed out of the Performing Arts Center. When the moderator realized the vote was being challenged, he sent a registrar out to the school lobby to round up voters, but she returned saying no one was left.

Finally, a standing vote was organized, which reversed the moderator’s call on the earlier voice vote. The standing count was 90-71 in favor of the procedure change to vote the remaining eight articles as a block.

Then, without debate on any of the spending issues in the override articles, the meeting voted by voice on the remaining eight. Mr. Richardson declared the eight articles approved. They included money to restore cuts in the boards of health, highway, and school departments, restore lifeguard service to town beaches, and substantially increase wages for the fire chief and firefighters. Earlier, following impassioned debate, voters approved override questions restoring the cuts made last fall to the police and assessing departments.

The following day, voters in the broader theater of election day at the polls, rejected all 11 override questions by overwhelming margins, excepting only a school department override question which would add $37,500 to the $5.9 million dollar Oak Bluffs School operating budget.

After voters rejected a room tax on Tuesday evening, town administrator Michael Dutton presented recommendations to close the budget gap at the start of Wednesday session. The room tax was expected to raise $100,000 in new revenue.

Voters approved his recommendations to cut $30,000 intended to fund future retirement benefits for town employees and to eliminate $25,000 intended for the planning board to create a new master plan. They rejected a recommendation to cut $15,000 in funding for the town’s information kiosk at the foot of Circuit Avenue. The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce previously funded the booth.

The meeting got testy when a board of health commissioner moved to reconsider the highway department budget. In conversations earlier in the day, highway superintendent Richard Combra Jr. told the board of health he could keep a currently unfilled position vacant for a short time, and use the money to fund a position cut from the board of health by voters at last year’s special town meeting in October. That raised the ire of several other departments who experienced their own personnel and service cuts. Voters rejected the interdepartmental budget swap.

Privately, many voters sharply criticized veteran moderator Dave Richardson’s handling of the meeting, while acknowledging the difficult balancing act the moderator must carry out. Some voters were dismayed at delays in the first night of the town meeting. At 6:55 pm, Tuesday evening there was a line of voters waiting to register for the town meeting that stretched out of performing arts center, through the lobby, and outside the building. The special town meeting, scheduled for 7 pm, was called to order at 7:15, but debate on the first article did not begin until 7:27. The town moderator repeatedly called for a quorum count before the beginning of debate. At 7:25 town constables relayed a count of 273 people registered to vote at the meeting. Oak Bluffs bylaws require only 50 voters to conduct town meeting business.

During the delay, the moderator explained voting procedures, including instructions to hold up the traditional yellow cards to signal a vote. Only to discover that there were not nearly enough yellow cards for all voters. Voters acted on nine relatively uncontroversial special town meeting warrants, finishing at 9:01. They completed only five annual town meeting articles, and had just begin debate on the $24.7 million budget when the 10:40 pm cutoff set by town bylaw arrived.

On the second night, April 14, shortly after 7 pm, a sizable number of voters began stomping their feet and clapping their hands, in an obvious gesture to get the meeting started. Publicly, few were willing to criticize Mr. Richardson. Privately the disapproval was sharp, and circulated freely during and after the first two nights of the meeting.

“I think the meeting could have been a little shorter,” said veteran selectman Duncan Ross, who is also a past moderator of town meeting. “Sometimes the explanations of things are longer than they need to be. It was confusing.”

“I thought it was a challenging meeting,” Mr. Richardson said in a phone conversation with The Times Tuesday. “It seems like when there was a balance of economic arguments, it just doesn’t go quickly or easily. That is reasonable and to be expected.”

Mr. Richardson was called on several times to reconsider an article that was already voted, sometimes the night before. He ruled that articles could not generally be reconsidered after the next article was taken up, and certainly not reconsidered from a previous evening.

First elected moderator in 1999, Mr. Richardson knows he is a target for criticism, and he knows there was an unusual amount of criticism during the meeting, But he lobbed much of that criticism back toward a small group of voters.

“I don’t mind criticism,” Mr. Richardson said. “But what I don’t like is people hearing the meeting gets bogged down and off message, when the person hasn’t even had the courtesy to stand up and speak into the microphone. About 10 percent of the people were unusually impatient and unusually rude. They just weren’t in the sprit of a town meeting. They weren’t willing to listen, they weren’t willing to wait, they were directing traffic from the get go. It’s a judgment call about how much you say, but if people ask for help, I’d rather respond to that than rush people who aren’t ready. We had about 300 people. There were people who hadn’t attended a meeting before, or forgot how to behave there.”