Oak Bluffs selectmen ink new contract with town administrator

Gail Barmakian assumed the chairmanship of the board.

Oak Bluffs town administrator Robert Whritenour. Photo by Ralph Stewart

In a vote of confidence for the man who has overseen the town’s emergence from financial turmoil, the five members of the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a new five-year contract for town administrator Robert Whritenour. The board voted in public session after a post-meeting executive session at its regular meeting.

“I think Oak Bluffs was a natural fit from the start,” Mr. Whritenour, a Falmouth resident, told The Times Wednesday morning. “I love working for this town. The level of engagement is unlike any other place I’ve been. It’s very easy to get a direct, blunt opinion in Oak Bluffs, and I really like that. People are passionate about their town.”

Mr. Whritenour that said moving forward, he hopes to help preserve the quality of life in Oak Bluffs, and to increase communication between town hall and the townspeople.

“When I came to work here five years ago I didn’t have a plan beyond that,” he said. “But working for Oak Bluffs has put me back in touch with the reasons I got into this business in the first place.”

Mr. Whritenour, who formerly worked for Falmouth, celebrated his 30th year of working as a town administrator this year.

Mr. Whritenour said he was unable to provide The Times with a copy of his new contract because the selectmen had not yet signed it. Requests for details about the terms of the contract from The Times addressed to outgoing chairman of the board of selectman Mike Santoro and incoming chairman Gail Barmakian went unanswered Wednesday.

Mr. Whritenour was named town administrator in February 2012. His current contract expires in February 2017. He will earn $148,627 this fiscal year, which included an allowance for retroactive payments. In FY17, which begins on July 1, his salary, approved at town meeting, will be $140,000.

The vote on Mr. Whritenour’s contract was the last action the board took under the chairmanship of Mr. Santoro. Selectmen voted unanimously Tuesday night to hand the chairman’s gavel to selectman Gail Barmakian. Ms. Barmakian has been a selectman for six years, and is just beginning her third three-year term, after running unopposed for her seat in this month’s town election.

Selectman Walter Vail was unanimously voted vice chairman.

Speaking to The Times Wednesday morning, Ms. Barmakian said as chairman, she hopes to improve communication between town boards and committees “so we can all work toward the same goals more cohesively.”

Ms. Barmakian said expanding capacity at the wastewater treatment plant and upgrading the aging elementary school and high school were two capital projects she hopes will move forward during her term. “I’m sure affordable housing will be an issue too,” she said. “As far as what takes top priority, I will go by the vote of the board.”

Ms. Barmakian stressed that no capital project undertaken by the town should add to the financial burden of the taxpayers.

In other business, Police Chief Erik Blake told selectmen that the police department is making some policy changes. He said the changes were in part a response to some sharp criticism at annual town meeting from a number of townspeople who felt the department’s image was too heavy-handed for a small seaside town.

In response to criticisms about the dark colors and dark tinted windows on the most recently added police cruisers, which were described as “assault vehicles” at town meeting, Chief Blake said the color scheme of the newly approved police cruisers will be decided by the townspeople. They will be able to vote on one of four color schemes that will be posted on the police department’s Facebook page or at a ballot box at the library. “We let the officers chose last time; this time we’ll let the people choose,” he said. 

Chief Blake said the department will also be increasing efforts to engage the public. “When our officers are not doing paperwork or on calls, they’ll be encouraged to be out interacting with the public,” he said.

For his part, Chief Blake said, on Friday, May 20, at 10 am he will host the first of a monthly “Coffee with the Chief,” which will be open to the public.

Chief Blake also presented selectmen with a strategic plan for the department. The priorities in the plan include improving internal communication, enhancing technology, achieving an appropriate staffing level, and improving community relations with increased outreach.

“Most of our officers are from this community,” he said. “We’re invested in this community, and we want to do it the right way.”

Chief Blake’s comments elicited a round of enthusiastic applause in the crowded library meeting room.

In a rare instance of selectmen overruling a committee recommendation, selectmen voted unanimously to reject the shellfish committee’s recommendation to reduce recreational scallop limits from one heaping bushel per week to one level bushel per week. A number of recreational and commercial scallopers were on hand to speak about the change.

“I was on the first shellfish committee in 1969, and it’s always been a heaping bushel, and we should leave it that way,” Ken Debettencourt said. “The commercial guys get three bushels a day, five days a week. They take the scallops out of the flats so there’s nothing left for the recreational people.” Mr. Debettencourt also said that having commercial scallopers on the shellfish committee was a clear conflict of interest.

Shellfish committee vice chairman Rick Huss was the only member of the committee at the meeting. He told selectmen the proposed change was intended to help preserve the scallop population and to make the limits uniform with Tisbury and Edgartown.

Edgartown resident Sandy Fisher, who was present to seek a license for his new Oak Bluffs Fish Market, said the Edgartown limit is a heaping “orange basket,” which is larger than a bushel basket.

“I know it’s difficult for selectmen to not do what committee requests, it’s hard enough to find people to serve,” Richard Combra Sr. said. “But this is a time when the board of selectmen have to stand tall. Scallop season is a almost a holiday in Oak Bluffs. It’s a fun time, and we want to leave it as a fun time.”

Resident Peter Bradford told selectmen that scalloping is funded by taxpayer money, and should not be dominated by commercial interests. “The residents deserve the scallops; they pay for all of this,” he said. “If we’re going to reduce the limit, make it the commercial fishermen.”

Planning board chairman Brian Packish, speaking on his own behalf, reiterated Mr. Debettencourt’s complaint that commercial fishermen should not be on the committee that makes and amends the town shellfish regulations. “If that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is,” he said.

“You guys elected us,” Mr. Huss said.