Aquinnah completes annual with a fond farewell

Aquinnah voters bid a fond goodbye Tuesday to longtime moderator Walter Delaney, who passed the gavel after 35 years presiding over town meetings.

They then moved quickly to approve a $2,973,886 fiscal 2011 operating budget without complaint, and they also approved most articles.

But voters dug their heels in for the third consecutive year and said no to a proposal to sell a 3.6-acre landlocked plot to abutters near Sand Castle Lane.

A total of 44 voters, or about 11 percent of the town’s 398 voters, attended to act on a 14-article special town meeting warrant and a 31-article annual town meeting warrant.

Voters approved all 14 articles on the specila town meeting warrant.

Mr. Delaney provided most of the drama. He gaveled the special town meeting to order, then asked town clerk Carolyn Feltz to call for floor nominations for an interim moderator, in accordance with Massachusetts General Law.

Mr. Delaney explained that discomfort from recent back surgery would not allow him to preside over what he said is “normally a long evening.”

Voters nominated and approved former selectman Michael Hebert as interim moderator. Mr. Hebert is also running unopposed for election as moderator in town elections held yesterday.

Selectman chairman Spencer Booker thanked Mr. Delaney and presented him with a plaque commemorating his service. Mr. Delaney smiled as voters stood and applauded, and when a wellwisher shouted, “Hey, Walter, you’ll finally be able to vote at town meeting.” Relinquishing the moderator’s chair, he sat among the voters on the floor.

Aquinnah’s annual town meetings are generally feisty affairs, and Mr. Hebert’s honeymoon moment was brief. Mr. Hebert combined humor and a brisk tone to move the meeting along, and on several occasions ended debate when speakers strayed from the point under discussion. He also required that voters stand and identify themselves to speak.

The major battle of the evening was a clash between selectmen and voters over three articles related to the sale of the Sand Castle parcel to abutters.

Voters approved an article to use proceeds from the sale to underwrite affordable housing in town, but they did not like the plan for the proposed sale or an article giving purchasing preference to abutters. After debate, including charges of a “sweetheart” deal for abutters, voters defeated the question, which would have set the land’s price as the lower of $600,000 or current assessed value.

“This sounds like a sweetheart deal to me,” said Wendy Swolinzky, who noted that abutters would be allowed to bid as a group rather than individuals, losing an opportunity for bidding competition for the land.

“I don’t see the value of selling now. Let’s wait a couple of years for values to come back. That’s what we’re doing with a piece of our property. There’s enough land there for two houses with killer water views. At $300,000 each?” said Barbara Bassett.

Roxanne Ackerman suggested the town use the land for affordable housing. Selectman Jim Newman countered that “it could take 20 years of lawsuits to gain right of way access to it.”

Following defeat of the sale price article, voters tabled two related articles to allow the sale and set the sale price.

Police Chief Randi Belain clashed briefly with selectman Jim Newman and several voters over his request for a new vehicle.

While the article called for spending $35,000 to buy a hybrid SUV, Mr. Belain said he had requested a non-hybrid $28,000 vehicle.

“This is not what I submitted or what I want. It’s not big enough to handle all the equipment we carry,” he said.

Ms. Swolinzky argued that the higher-priced vehicle met the town’s responsibility to be green, and Mr. Newman said fuel savings would help offset the higher price.

Voters evidently agreed with Mr. Belain’s contention that “It’ll take a long, long time to save $7,000 in gas and oil,” and they passed a motion to amend the article to reflect the chief’s preference before passing the article.

Voters also passed a measure to provide $50,000 in post-employment benefits, as required by federal law, and another requiring town employees to sign up for a Medicare supplementary plan which provides the same benefits as the town plan but at considerable savings. “It’s enough to allow us to level fund our health insurance costs,” said town treasurer Judy Jardin.

On the advice of town counsel Ron Rappaport, voters tabled another health insurance related article, authorizing the town to join an Island-wide pool to fund post-employment benefits for municipal government employees. Mr. Rappaport explained that the legislation enabling the fund has not yet been passed by the state legislature.

Finally, voters agreed to table an article redefining the flood plain district until a public hearing is held on new parameters set by the state. Adoption is ultimately necessary for homeowners to complete flood insurance applications. “We’ll deal with it quickly so people can get their flood insurance,” selectman Camille Rose said following the meeting.

Voters went to the polls at town hall yesterday between noon and 7 pm.