Oak Bluffs candidates make their case

Walter Vail and Abe Siemen at the League of Women Voters forum for Oak Bluffs candidates. — Photo by Barry Stringfellow

A candidate forum for the upcoming Oak Bluffs town election, sponsored by the League of Women Voters, drew a standing room only crowd at the Oak Bluffs library meeting room on Thursday evening. Judy Crawford of West Tisbury moderated the candidate presentations.

Of the eleven slots on the ballot, only four are contested.

Board of selectmen

Three candidates are running for two seats on the board of selectmen. Chairman of the selectmen Walter Vail and selectman Michael Santoro are running for re-election. Abraham Seiman, a member of the town financial committee, is also seeking a seat on the board.

Mr. Santoro was unable to attend due to a family matter off-Island, however he submitted a written statement, which was read by moderator Judy Crawford. Mr. Santoro cited the dramatic turnaround in town finances over the past three years, which he attributed in part to the “dedication, teamwork and commitment of the selectmen.” He said the board has made a point to listen to the special interest committees, “which are the pulse of our town.”

Mr. Santoro serves as chairman of the roads and byways committee; he also serves on the harbor committee and is the selectmen’s designee to the fire department. He gave kudos to town administrator Robert Whritenour. “If it wasn’t for Bob and his leadership skills, our town would not be standing as it is today,” he wrote.

Mr. Vail also cited the dramatic turnaround in town finances over the past three years, with free cash going from $880,000 in the red to $961,000 in the black. He said the new harbor fueling facility, which goes in operation this spring, should turn a profit for the town in the first year of operation.

Mr. Vail is on the roads and byways committee and the affordable housing committee. He has been working on a plan with the all-Island taxi commission to bring improved taxi service to the Island, with the growing senior community particularly in mind. He has also been working with various agencies to create a committee dedicated to the health of the great ponds. He promised an improved website and increased use of social media to improve communications with constituents. “I enjoy bringing positive results,” he said. “I believe I’m the right choice for the next three years. I pledge to do my job to represent all of Oak Bluffs.”

Abraham Seiman expressed disappointment that so few year-round residents get involved with, or pay attention to, town government. He attributed this in part to the time demands of making a living on the Island and also because many residents feel disenfranchised from town government. Mr. Seiman has owned a house in Oak Bluffs since 1962 and moved here full time with his wife four years ago after he retired. Since then he has worked on the library committee, the healthy aging task force, the Island food pantry and community housing. He promised to pay particular attention to the issues confronting the growing senior population while noting that many young people “face the the difficulties of having to choose between the need to earn a living, which often means working two jobs, and having free time raise children.” He differed from Mr. Vail on the proposed budget override, saying he felt the town’s free cash should cover the entire amount, not part of it as Mr. Vail believes and as Mr. Santoro has endorsed at previous selectmen’s meetings. He also differed with Mr. Vail and Mr. Santoro about the plans for the new town hall, saying while the building needed to be replaced, the fire station, which ironically does not meet state fire codes, should be completed first, before taking on the cost of a new town hall. Mr. Vail said the longer the town waits on a new town hall, the more it will cost the town and that studies have shown the foundation is literally crumbling. “It’s a sad looking structure. We can do better,” Mr. Vail said.

Planning board

In a race that pits a longtime incumbent against a well known community volunteer, planning board chairman John Bradford is running for re-election against Ewell Hopkins Jr.

Mr. Bradford had a long standing commitment off-Island and was unable to attend.In his statement read by Ms. Crawford, he said that the town is about to embark on a new streetscape master plan, made possible by a government grant, and he encouraged town-wide participation. “The planning board will be working on this but it needs to be a community effort. The board will again be seeking members to be on the master plan committee. “Input from townspeople is vital in creating best plans possible.”

Mr. Hopkins made the most impassioned speech of the night, starting with the need to revamp the outdated and conflicting zoning by-laws. “We can no longer do this piece by piece,” he said. “We need to have a vision for the town.” Mr. Hopkins said that this vision had to include all parts of Oak Bluffs, including Tradewinds, Dukes County Ave, the beaches — not just Circuit Ave.

“Our number one priority is to think creatively in how to engage individuals in the process,” he said. “We have to embrace technology to solicit input, we have to go where people are instead of waiting for them. It may be sitting at a table at Mocha Motts and asking people what they think.”

School Committee

The contest for the open school committee seat is between Michael Hoyt and Michele Moore. Mr. Hoyt, funeral director at Chapman, Cole and Gleason, has been on the school advisory council for the past six years and is a member of the Martha’s Vineyard chamber of commerce, where he recently stepped down as president after a three-year term.  Ms. Moore has been an active parent volunteer for 10 years, and was president of the Oak Bluffs school PTO for four years until last fall. She also has experience working in fundraising and event planning with non-profit organizations.

Mr. Hoyt said that the school advisory council helped arrange for a full time Oak Bluffs police presence at the school at no extra cost to the school and also instituted a new bullying prevention plan.

Both candidates thought the Oak Bluffs school budget has been cut to the bone, with teachers digging into their own pockets for school supplies and parents contributing time and materials. “The staff goes above and beyond the call every day,” said Ms. Moore, calling for creative financing as opposed to further cuts. Mr. Hoyt said he felt the accounting pencil could be sharpened at the high school level, specifically with the shared services programs. “The Oak Bluffs school has kept to what the town asked,” he said. “Last year, the 1.5 percent overall increase still required significant cuts.” Mr. Hoyt also said more careful planning by looking at population growth could help avoid surprises, like the jump in Oak Bluffs students enrolled at the high school, which is the primary cause for the override on the town warrant. Mr. Hoyt said his time with the chamber of commerce has given him experience lobbying state officials and if elected, he would ask the committee to consider lobbying for state funding for special needs students that would stay with the individual student, regardless of where they live in the Commonwealth, rather than putting the burden on the town.

There are four candidates for three seats on the financial advisory committee, but only two — incumbents Maura McGroarty and Abraham Seiman — were present at the forum. Ms. McGroarty has worked in the public sector and private sector she has been on the financial advisory committee for past three years. “I am desperate to get post employment benefits in our budget,” she said. “It’s going to impact the people who work for this town for long after we’ll be here,” she said.

Mr. Seimen has also been on the financial advisory committee for the past three years. He pointed to the turnaround in town finances as an example of the committee’s work. “I think we’ve done a marvelous job in gaining more precision in what we do. Municipal finances are unlike any other finances. With another three year term I’ll get even better at it.”

The forum will be broadcast in its entirety on MVTV channel 13 and on the website, MVTV.org.