Five vie for two seats on Oak Bluffs board of selectmen

The crowded field reflects a vigorous contest over town leadership.

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Campers from Camp Jabberwocky came and danced around the gazebo in Ocean Park. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Oak Bluffs voters will decide a five-way race for two seats on the five-member board of selectmen when they go to the polls on Thursday, April 16. Incumbents Kathy Burton and Greg Coogan will attempt to retain their seats in the face of challenges from Brian Packish, Abraham Seiman, and Raymond Taylor.

Kathy Burton, a selectman for six years, is seeking re-election to a third term. She is a member of the intergovernmental task force to the Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, was a member of the Cottage City Historic District Commission for many years, and serves on the Oak Bluffs Affordable Housing Committee. She and her partner have lived in Oak Bluffs year-round for 22 years and raised a 19-year-old daughter, Annie, now a sophomore at UMass Amherst majoring in chemical engineering.

She is currently a branch manager for Santander Bank in Edgartown.

Greg Coogan is seeking his fifth term on the board of selectmen, which he currently chairs. The former Tisbury School math teacher is retired following a more than 30-year career in education. He has served on the conservation commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Brian Packish, a lifelong resident of Oak Bluffs, is chairman of the planning board and chairman of the streetscape master-plan project. He also serves on the joint Tisbury–Oak Bluffs Lagoon Pond committee, the roads and byways committee, and many other town and civic groups. He is the father of a 13-year-old daughter, and he owns and operates a landscape company in Oak Bluffs.

Abe Seiman and his wife have been homeowners in Oak Bluffs since 1962, and retired here six years ago. Prior to his retirement, Mr. Seiman was a pharmaceutical statistician and health care administrator. Currently he serves as a member of the finance, personnel, and affordable housing committees, and on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission and the Healthy Aging Task Force.

Ray Taylor, a Navy veteran and former police officer for the town of Wellesley for 10 years, works full-time for Cape Cod Express on-Island as a CDL class A driver. The father of two daughters, ages 20 and 26, he says community service is an important part of his life. He is vice chairman of the Oak Bluffs finance and advisory committee.

Q and A

The Times posed a series of questions to each candidate and asked that they respond in writing. The questions and their responses follow.

Why did you decide to run for election (or re-election) to the board of selectmen?

Ms. Burton: I am running for re-election to the board of selectmen to continue the work this board has begun. This board has worked diligently with the town administrator, the finance committee, school representatives, town departments, and voters to dramatically improve our town finances from the negative to the positive. Our Standard and Poor’s bond rating has gone from AA- to AA+, which is a two-step increase, further demonstrating financial stability. We need to continue to practice fiscal responsibility as we balance many pressing needs facing Oak Bluffs, to include rising school budgets due to increases in our student population, much-needed infrastructure improvements, measures to improve and protect the health and quality of our saltwater ponds, and more.

Mr. Coogan: I am now in my 12th year on the board, and I feel my job is not done. I think my strength on the board is coming to every meeting with an open mind. It is a difficult process sometimes to reach a consensus with all the parties involved, and I believe that my contribution helps to make that happen. We regularly have complex problems that come before us, and we are more often than not the final decision maker. Calm, reasonable approaches are necessary, though not always popular with some; still, we must make those decisions in the best interests of all the people of Oak Bluffs. I feel that I have done that and my record shows that to be true.

Mr. Packish: My decision to run for selectman was developed over a lifetime. I grew up in Oak Bluffs, attended the Oak Bluffs School and now reside in Oak Bluffs with my family. Growing up Oak Bluffs is a privilege. I love seeing many of the same people I remember as a child both summer and year-round, and have grown to have friendships with them as an adult. My daughter, Tyla, is now being afforded the same opportunities.

I attended every town meeting growing up, and have always had a desire to serve. I slowly became involved in governing the town of Oak Bluffs in various ways over the years. My passion for Oak Bluffs and the residents continues to grow today.

During my involvement as chairman of the planning board and chairman of the streetscape master-plan project, I have had the opportunity to speak directly with the people on an up-close and personal level. I have learned so much from them. These discussions have given me insight that I believe can be valuable to the town and its people.

It is my belief that I can bring a fresh perspective, a strong work ethic, and a voice for the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Seiman: I decided to run for election because, although I admire the progress that the administration has accomplished in the past six years, I feel that it is time for adding some new ideas, integrating more residents in the decision-making process, and placing the greatest attention toward providing for their needs. While all of the candidates support these goals, I am the only one, thus far, to provide a practical plan to accomplish these goals, as stated on my campaign card.

Mr. Taylor: I decided to run for selectman because in order to effect any real change within town government, one must start at the policy decision-making table. The town has come a long from the financial mismanagement of the past. Therefore, it has to remain committed to its stated strategic goals of sustainable budgets and living within its means. That means living with the limits of Proposition 2.5.

What would you suggest be done to reduce the pressure on town taxpayers?

Ms. Burton: To reduce pressure on town taxpayers I suggest we continue to practice fiscal responsibility; that we work with our legislators and the governor’s new Community Compact Cabinet, created to “protect local aid,” to ensure a positive “local aid” rather than $150,256 in negative local aid; that we work to protect and increase local revenues. With community support, I suggest a park and ride at the old landfill, incorporating solar panels to reduce the town’s energy expenses. We face many challenges as we carefully increase staff and administrative support. I suggest that the next budget include an administrative support position to research and write grants, offsetting taxpayer costs for necessary projects. We have many talented department heads who successfully apply for grants. I can only imagine that we would be able to secure more with a grant writer on staff.

Mr. Coogan: First, we are very lucky to have such a strong tax base from our real estate. We get no real outside help from the commonwealth. In fact, we owe them more than we receive from them in any subsidies. We have to find ways to control school and insurance costs. We still give our children the great education they deserve, and provide adequate health care to our employees. The rest of our departments had minimal increases (if at all) in their budgets this year. It continues to be very difficult to live within the confines of Prop 2.5 when some costs exceed that with single- and double-digit increases.

Mr. Packish: It is my belief that only through proper planning, public outreach, and respect for the taxpayer’s voice can we reduce the pressure of taxation on the town’s people. A solid, well-represented process will reduce costs and administrative load. Projects and initiatives can be done faster and cleaner with less cost. If we embrace a process, for the people by the people we will strengthen our community and create an environment of participation. By doing so, we will reduce the tax rate and improve the quality of life for our citizens one step at a time.

Mr. Seiman: As a member of the finance committee, which along with the board of selectmen and town administrator is responsible for producing the budget, we all have come to realize that many of the items that make up the budget are beyond our control. For example, the yearly, increasing, unfinanced requirements demanded of our school systems, the negative state aid, and costs of goods and services. Massachusetts allows for a yearly 2.5 percent increase in the property tax (Prop 2.5), and

for the past several years, we have managed not to exceed that amount with the exception of 2014. This was accomplished by minimizing the amount allotted to each department. However, the possibility of increasing summer revenues, especially amounts arising from tourism, could be the answer to avoid further tax overrides in the future. Some suggestions: increasing marina fees, metered town parking, and increasing the penalties for parking and speeding tickets, littering and alcohol/drug-related driving.

Mr. Taylor: The very best way for an Oak Bluffs taxpayer to reduce the pressure on their property tax bill is to support leaders that are committed to balanced budgets without overrides. The pressure from negative state aid, fixed contractual obligations, unfunded liabilities, state mandates, local infrastructure needs, and an aging population are going to put real fiscal strain on the town’s operating budget. We will need leaders who understand these issues and more.

Please describe the state of Oak Bluffs.

Ms. Burton: Oak Bluffs is recovering from a very difficult time. Our finances have improved, and are stable. With consistent attention and oversight, they’ll continue to improve. We have completed projects important to our town, such as the universal-access fishing pier and the revenue-generating harbor fuel facility. I am looking forward to participating with town boards, town departments, and our town administrator in the oversight of town goals such as the completion of our fire/EMS station, the North Bluff seawall reconstruction, the boardwalk, downtown improvements, and the implementation of projects necessary to improve the quality of our important saltwater ponds.

Mr. Coogan: I love living in Oak Bluffs. We have a very complex culture within our town. The seasons bring us such diversity with our population and with our various interests. We are the town that needs to serve all interests from our beaches to both of our education institutions to the many nonprofits that lie within our borders. We are not a wealthy town, yet we strive to help all the people of the Island because we are in many ways the center of the Vineyard both culturally and geographically.

Mr. Packish: After a long period of time without a town accountant in place, the economics are beginning to improve. We are still in need of restoring services to the taxpayers, and have many projects the residents are pleading to have accomplished. The town beaches are a jewel to our community; access and condition should be a priority. Our ponds need to be prioritized, and Little Bridge desperately needs our help. If elected, these are a sample of items I would work diligently to resolve.

Mr. Seiman: Oak Bluffs retains its character of untouched natural beauty, most popular beaches, and center for entertainment. It is a mecca for the arts, such sports as hiking and fishing, quiet walks, and historic sites. This is particularly true during the spring, fall, and even winter, when Oak Bluffs is less crowded and the all-year-round population has a greater chance of partaking and appreciating all of these advantages of living in Oak Bluffs.

Mr. Taylor: The state of Oak Bluffs is that of a town in flux. Residents know how far we have come financially, but have we ignored the security, serenity, and sanity of local residents? Some might say the town hall currently has too much of an off-Island feel to it. I personally love the unique characteristics of Oak Bluffs residents. The board of selectmen should be a representation of the whole community we love.