Oak Bluffs planning board members chart a new course

Officials vow increased outreach, greater transparency, and a stronger presence in town hall.

Oak Bluffs planning board members Euell Hopkins (left) and Brian Packish want the planning board to play a stronger role in town affairs. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Oak Bluffs officials have good reason to be optimistic in 2015. Reduced deficits, increased reserves, and a stable outlook recently prompted Standard and Poor’s (S&P) to up Oak Bluffs’ town bond rating two grades, from AA- to AA+. New buildings are springing up in the business district, improvements abound on Circuit Avenue, and last month construction began on a new $8.3 million fire station, the town’s first capital project since the library broke ground more than a decade ago.

At the fire station groundbreaking, chairman of the board of selectmen Greg Coogan said the new municipal building embodied a rejuvenated cooperative spirit in town government. “We’ve seen a renewed sense of teamwork here in town, demonstrated by all of you,” he said.

If indeed the new fire station evinces a new spirit of teamwork in Oak Bluffs, members of the town planning board said they were left sitting on the bench. Only a last-minute discovery by the newly hired town building inspector, who legally couldn’t issue construction permits without a site review, gave the planning board a say. Ultimately, the board approved the project with minimal changes and a unanimous vote that was less than enthusiastic.

“Our hands were pretty well tied,” planning board chairman Brian Packish told The Times. “Legally, the planning board has 60 days to vet a project. We had seven days. But the last thing you want to do is show the process being ineffective at this final hour…The hope is we’re going to create a better process and do some things differently in Oak Bluffs.”

In a recent conversation with The Times, Mr. Packish, owner of Packish Landscaping, and board member Ewell Hopkins, an information technology consultant, discussed changes they believe will improve the planning process, increase the board’s efficiency, and make the town more responsive to taxpayers.

Town hall transparency
“There’s a misconception that it’s crazy in O.B., and we’re fighting all the time,” Mr. Packish said. “People are passionate about O.B. When they’re excluded from the process, they make decisions based on rumors because our government isn’t presenting them with facts, soliciting their input, and making decisions based on the will of the people.”

“The process is fundamentally busted,” Mr. Hopkins said. “There are many anecdotal examples that show the lack of appreciation for a collaborative approach in the town. Anytime officials say they want to get something done so they don’t want to involve other voices, they’re reaching a level of arrogance that I don’t support. I don’t think there’s any decision you can make that is a better decision by excluding people.”

“Some people can argue that financially, the town of Oak Bluffs has come a long way, but as we cleaned up our books, the rest of our process stayed as broken as our finances were five years ago,” Mr. Packish said. “In the name of control and in the name of owning and manipulating the process, many, many steps are skipped.”

Mr. Packish cited a Dec. 4 roads and byways committee meeting that was not posted or open to the public. “We had a meeting that was very, very illegal,” he said. “I said, ‘This a quorum, we shouldn’t be having a meeting behind closed doors,’ and Bob [Whritenour] said, ‘Well, we are.’”

Mr. Packish said he was assured by committee chairman and selectman Michael Santoro that no decisions would be made in the meeting. “But that’s not relevant criteria to whether you have a meeting or not,” he said. “And they did make decisions. They picked areas for potential paid parking. They talked a lot about park and ride. I kept asking, ‘When are we going to have a hearing? How do we vet this?’ and there were no answers. Basically what you’re saying is you don’t want to hear from the people who are writing the check. Where else would you go and say, ‘I don’t care what you think, I just want your money’? That’s what the town has been doing.”

Mr. Hopkins said the agenda for the park and ride is an example of a special interest group, in this case the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA), promoting an agenda without input from the wider population. “The OBA hasn’t said, ‘What do we need to do to broaden our perspective on this?’” he said. “They’re coming together to design something based on their perception of need, which in this case is commerce. But you don’t have a residential voice in this discussion; you don’t have an elderly voice in this discussion; you don’t have parents of young children in this discussion. I think those voices are as valuable as the other voices.”

More cohesion
In addition to creating a better working relationship between town government and taxpayers, a priority for the board is to increase efficiency within town hall.

“There’s got to be a central repository for planning,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We don’t do that, because historically whoever had the juice makes the decisions. You can’t properly plan if you don’t know what’s happening in other [departments], and it ain’t happening.”

“Our goal is to create a process that shows cooperation between all of the town boards,” Mr. Packish said. “We’re not looking to own the process, we’re looking to have the information in one place.”

“But,” Mr. Hopkins interjected, you need to have a planning board that has respect in the town. The planning board in Edgartown is listened to by the town. They fund it properly, they give it the authority that it warrants, because they understand the importance of planning. If you look at the budgets at the six towns and look at Oak Bluffs, you can see something is wrong.”

In 2013, the budget for the Edgartown planning board was $77,673, according to the town report. The planning board budget for West Tisbury was $53,574, for Tisbury $60,700, and for Oak Bluffs, the Island’s largest, most populous town, the budget was $7,654.

“Before we spend an extra dime on the planning budget in Oak Bluffs, we have to figure out where we’re spending planning dollars already,” Mr. Hopkins said. “We’ve seen how dispersed the planning process is in other departments; that translates to additional costs. We write a check to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) every year, but what do we get for that money? How many professional planning hours do we get, and who’s auditing it? The relationship with the MVC shouldn’t always be adversarial. Why not take advantage of their resources — the mapping, the traffic studies, et cetera, and in effect, use the expertise we’re already paying for, so we don’t have to carry that load.”

Oak Bluffs assessment in the $1.4 million MVC’s FY16 budget, set to be approved next week, is $141,868.

Broken records
The Edgartown planning board has a support staff of one full-time and one part-time employee. Currently the Oak Bluffs board is allocated five hours a week from Shelly Carter, administrative assistant to the board of selectmen. “Shelly does a great job, but we at least need a part-time administrative assistant,” Mr. Packish said. “In Oak Bluffs, we can’t even document what we’ve done.”

“There’s two years worth of minutes missing from the planning board,” Mr. Hopkins said. “The minutes are in complete disarray. We can’t afford to be so amateuristic. We have major legal challenges ahead, and there’s no documentation. Now the big elephant in the room is Southern Woodlands.”

Mr. Packish said the board was recently informed by MVC development of regional impact (DRI) coordinator Paul Foley that a developer has expressed interest in purchasing the long-troubled tract.

“You can’t just decide that you’re going to allow 70 acres to be developed with no documentation of what transpired up to that,” Mr. Hopkins said. “Right now, legal challenges cannot be defended, because [meeting minutes] are still on tapes that haven’t been transcribed. That’s not acceptable. We’re going to have to get sued for us to realize that we can’t keep doing that.”

Entrenched attitudes
There are long-held beliefs in town hall and in the vox populi that the planning board intends to challenge in 2015. “I hear two things consistently,” Mr. Packish said. “On the one hand I hear [town officials] say, ‘We have to do it this way, otherwise everyone is just going to stop it.’ So they hold it and covet it, and spring it on you at the last minute. Then I talk to people on the street and I say, ‘Why don’t you participate? You’ve got a great idea there. Come to the next meeting.’ They say to me, ‘Why? The decision’s already been made, I’m not going to waste my time.’ We need to bridge those two mindsets.”

“There’s no public input, because fundamentally, starting with the governing body, there’s no appreciation for the importance of public input, and that turns to apathy,” Mr. Hopkins said.

Mr. Packish said the recently formed Downtown Streetscape Committee is an example of how increased outreach can work. “We’ve been tireless in exploiting every avenue,” he said, “from sitting in front of the post office to manning a booth at Harborfest. We went door-to-door to downtown businesses, we did a direct mailing to everybody within 500 feet of the district, and we’ve expanded our social media presence. What we’re finding is people are embracing it. After seeing the amount of participation that we had with the streetscape committee, it feels foreign to me to sit at a meeting and create a park and ride, which is such a big item for our downtown, and see zero outreach.”

Mr. Packish said he is optimistic the the incipient change in 2014 will gain momentum in 2015. “I think the tide is slowly turning,” he said. “We’re seeing more faces at meetings. We’ve had 30 and 40 people at planning board meetings. Not long ago, if 10 people came it was considered a crowd. When you sit in a meeting with 30 to 40 people, when you get constant emails and have constant discussions, you get a really clear sense, very quickly, as to what the people want. It’s really very simple.”

Chairman responds
In a telephone conversation with The Times on Tuesday, chairman of the board of selectmen Greg Coogan responded to some of the concerns Mr. Packish and Mr. Hopkins expressed.

“I don’t feel like that we’ve ignored them. I think the planning board has played an increased role since the downtown study was done with consultants, and got the town looking at itself from someone else’s perspective,” he said. “Brian and Ewell have done a great job, as have all the members of the planning board. We welcome their involvement.”

Mr. Coogan said the board intends to address the administrative shortcomings in this year’s budget. “The budget is tight, but we are looking at giving them more administrative assistance,” he said. “Keep in mind we’re also trying to give more support to the building department and the health department. I’m sure they’ll want more than we can give, but we have to start somewhere. We have a lot of planning to be done in the coming year, and it’s nice to have a board that’s so energetic about the planning process.”

In his budget for FY16, presented to the selectmen Tuesday night, town administrator Robert Whritenour proposed a $12,000 budget for the planning board. The amount is a 57 percent increase over the FY15 budget and the $10,000 allocation for clerical salary almost doubles the $5,654 allocation in FY15, but it falls considerably short of the requested $21,836.