Oak Bluffs emergency management director defends boat repairs

The Oak Bluffs fire and police rescue boat is docked in Oak Bluffs harbor. Repairs to her hull cost taxpayers $26,100. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Oak Bluffs emergency management director Peter Martell said this week that he went through proper channels when he signed off on over $27,000 in no-bid repairs to the fire and police rescue boat, Red, White and Blue. He added that he acted in the interest of public safety.

Tuesday night, selectmen spurned Mr. Martell’s request for reappointment to a full two year term as emergency management director, the post he has held for the past 37 years, and appointed him to the end of the year.

In a recent interview, Mr. Martell said he went to great lengths to save the town money, including paying more than $15,000 out of his own pocket, and he bristled at the notion that he did anything wrong.

The issue of the cost of boat repair arose at a meeting on July 9 between Oak Bluffs selectmen and the town’s finance and advisory committee called to make $55,020 in year-end transfers to balance the books at the end of fiscal year 2013.

Walter Vail, chairman of the selectmen, said Mr. Martell ordered the extensive repairs without competitive bidding, as required by state procurement laws, and without the knowledge of the selectmen or town finance officials.

“Peter Martell takes full responsibility,” Mr. Vail told the gathered town officials. “He’s not going to do that again.”

Town administrator Bob Whritenour also assured the elected officials that department heads are now aware of proper procurement procedures.

At the time Mr. Martell ordered the repairs, the town was under scrutiny by the office of the Massachusetts attorney general for faulty bidding procedures.

Sole source

Responding to the criticism, Mr. Martell cited sole source vendor policy — a procurement policy that requires that when time is critical and the specialized expertise of the manufacturer is needed, no-bid contracting is permissible.

“Sole source vendor is an accepted practice with public safety vehicles,” Mr. Martell said. “If we had to go through the normal bidding laws, that boat would have been out of service for 18 months, because you have to go to town meetings, it gets voted in April but you can’t use the money until July, then another four months to get it done. That was unacceptable. The turnaround to get everything done was four months.”

Mr. Martell also denied that he acted in secrecy, saying, “When this happened, the town administrator [Michael Dutton] was well aware of it. So was the town accountant. There were no secrets. We discussed it.”

Notwithstanding Mr. Vail’s comment, Mr. Martell said that if the boat were to break tomorrow “and I need to get it fixed, I’m going to get it fixed.”

No waiver allowed

Not so fast, Mr. Whritenour said in response to a question from The Times about the sole source vendor process.

“I would require that three quotes be procured for this level of work, whether emergency or non-emergency,” Mr. Whritenour said in an email to The Times. “If a qualified marine metal fabricator responds that they are unable to perform the work, that counts as a quote. In the future, if it becomes necessary to make a sole-source procurement, the reason for the sole-source will first be certified in writing by the chief procurement officer, which is me.”

Mr. Whritenour said there is no “public safety” waiver of the procurement process. “I estimate that it would have taken an afternoon to get three qualified quotes, so that wouldn’t create a delay,” he said.

Shocking discovery

The boat damage was discovered in August, 2011, when the boat was hauled out of the water for annual maintenance.

“Normally we haul this boat out every year in April or May at Packer’s [R.M. Packer in Vineyard Haven] because he refuses to send us a bill,” said Mr. Martell. “But his railway was broken, so in August we took it to Edgartown Marine and we picked it up and got the shock of our life. Holes 1/8 of an inch, patches of bottom paint had come off, the zincs [zinc plates that mitigate hull corrosion] were eaten alive. The damage was from electrolysis. We can’t tell you how or why, but the electricity in that corner [of the harbor] got worse. There was no way we could have known.”

While all salt water harbors are teeming with electrical current, several people familiar with Oak Bluffs harbor said it is especially conducive to electrolysis — more accurately galvanic corrosion — due to the widely fluctuating electrical current. Boats that use shore power, as is the case with the Red White and Blue, are additionally prone to galvanic corrosion.

Mr. Martell said Edgartown Marine was not equipped to do the repairs, so he contacted the manufacturer, MetalCraft Marine, in Cape Vincent, New York. A representative from MetalCraft determined that the quickest fix was for MetalCraft to fabricate pieces for a new hull in Cape Vincent and to replace them on Island. But it quickly became apparent there was no quick fix. 

”They came down to do the work but the aluminum was like shredded wheat,” he said. “It wouldn’t hold a weld. So the next best thing was dismantle the mast, put it on a trailer and haul it to MetalCraft Marine.”

Money walks

Initially, Mr. Martell said, there was every indication from federal officials that the town would receive a $45,000 repair grant. “Then it goes to Washington and next thing I know we’ve been approved. Problem solved, everybody’s happy. A week later I get a call from a bean counter in Washington. He discovered that we started the work a month before the grant period, so we lose the money,” he said. “A week after I get a call from some lady in Washington wanting to know the routing number for the town’s bank account. I thought we got the grant back, so I give her the number and I’m all smiles. Two days later I get a call that the grant has been disapproved. So all of a sudden we’re out a lot of money.”

Mr. Martell said MetalCraft was very accommodating after he gave them the bad news. “They extended the usual payment period from one year to three, which I thought was damn nice of them. I’d sent MetalCraft a check for $6,500 to bring the crew to work here (for the first attempted repair). Since they couldn’t fix it, they credited us for that too.”

The $27,000 bill to the town was only for the hull restoration at MetalCraft Marine. According to Mr. Martell, he personally paid an additional $15,000 for hauling, transporting, and mechanical repairs. In addition, he covered the costs of preventative maintenance equipment, isolation transformers that regulate the current from the shore hook-up, and a gauge for the wheelhouse that indicates galvanic corrosion, which were also purchased.

“I invested $15,000 of my money in this boat which nobody wants to recognize. I’ve got the receipts to prove it,” Mr. Martell said, piqued at the notion the he’s a rogue spendthrift with taxpayer money.

Mr. Martell said that he checks on the boat almost daily and that OBPD officer Jeff Labell, operations officer of the boat, is also keeping a close eye on it.