West Tisbury chairman chided for losing his temper

In this photo from the MVTV tape of the meeting, West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel aims his gavel at Prudy Burt in the foreground and shouts, "Done." — MVTV

The continuing West Tisbury debate over the future of the Mill Pond and the dam that created it spilled over at a meeting of the West Tisbury selectmen on June 8, and led to a call by one concerned citizen for Richard Knabel, chairman, to apologize to Prudy Burt, longtime Conservation Commission member.

The kerfuffle began following a discussion between selectmen and members of the historic district commission over the language to go on a plaque commissioners propose to place in a small park next to the pond that describes the pond history, beginning with a grist mill that operated nearby in the late 1600s and ends with its gift to the town by Donald Campbell in 1948.

Town residents, including Mr. Knabel who favors dredging and Ms. Burt who opposes it, have been divided for years over the future of the pond and the dam that created it, and the extent to which they are willing to fund dredging. The town is currently conducting a study of the entire Mill Brook watershed, which includes portions of Chilmark.

Ms. Burt has been an outspoken advocate of restoring the Mill Brook to its natural, free-flowing state, a change she argues that would be beneficial for the overall habitat and the once abundant native species it supported, including brook trout, American eels, river herring, and smelt.

About 46 minutes into the meeting, available on demand at MVTV, the Island’s community, educational, and government cable channel, the three selectmen, Mr. Knabel, Cynthia Mitchell, and Jeffrey “Skipper” Manter, reviewed the text of the language for the plaque. There was some stylistic discussion between the members of the historic commission and selectmen over Ms. Mitchell’s proposed edits, intended to shorten the text.

Once the discussion had ended, Mr. Knabel recognized Ms. Burt: “Prudy, last word,” he said.

Ms. Burt said she wanted to make “a couple of comments” and had a question. She asked why, given the many references in the text to the mill, the plaque would not be affixed to the mill building rather than set next to the pond. Mr. Knabel suggested Ms. Burt raise that issue with the historic commission.

Ms. Burt then said she had learned much over the past two years as a member of the Mill Brook study commission. “If you look on our pages on the town website,” she continued, “we’ve learned quite a lot about Mill Brook and the history of Mill Brook before there was ever a human —”

Mr. Knabel interrupted her: “Now Prudy, that’s certainly off topic at this point. I’m going to cut you off. OK. I’m sorry.”

Ms. Burt tried to continue: “OK, one last —”

Mr. Knabel, his face flush, his voice raised, told Ms. Burt: “No. You’re done. I’m sorry, you’re done.” For emphasis he slammed his gavel on the table and pointed it at Ms. Burt. “Done!”

Ms. Burt replied, “How dare you talk to me like that? I’m a member of the ConCom —”

“You are not running this meeting,” Mr. Knabel said angrily as his fellow two selectmen sat silent, Mr. Manter looking downward at documents and Ms. Mitchell with a thin smile. “All right.”

Ms. Burt said she would write a letter.

“Please do,” Mr. Knabel said. “Let us go back to our agenda.”

The meeting continued for about another 10 minutes. As the selectmen prepared to call it a night, Mr. Knabel called for public comment.

Ms. Burt spoke up. “I don’t like to leave a meeting room like this — us having words like that. My family’s lived in this town for well over 300 years, and I don’t disrespect the history of this town.”

She said it was upsetting to experience meetings where voices were raised, and vowed to do her best to maintain a calm composure. “I hope you all will treat me with respect,” she said. “I’ve been on the conservation commission for over 20 years; I’ve put in the past two and a half years on the Mill Brook watershed committee, and I’ve served on other committees, so I would at least like to have that recognition. You can disagree with me all you want, but let’s keep it calm.”

Mr. Knabel offered a qualified apology. “Well, I’m sorry I lost my temper with you,” he said. “But I would say this: There are some parts of the discussion that are on topic and some that are not, and I just felt that you were bringing up a whole different matter for other reasons — I run the meeting and I can ask you to stop — and when I ask you to stop, I want you to stop.”

At the West Tisbury meeting on June 22, selectmen received their packet of correspondence for that week. Chairman Knabel declined to read the first letter into the record. The one-page typed letter, dated June 15, addressed to Ms. Burt and copied to the selectmen, was signed “West Tisbury citizen.” Explaining his decision, Mr. Knabel said he did not believe “we accept anonymous letters.”

The letter began by thanking Ms. Burt for her “service, dedication, and long history of commitment to the Town of West Tisbury.

“I am a resident, taxpayer, and voter of this town,” the letter writer said. “I just finished watching the selectmen’s meeting of June 8. I am appalled by the aggressive, attacking, and bullying behavior of the chair directed at you … a feeble, ‘I am sorry, I lost my temper,’ is not enough. The chair needs to write a letter of apology to you, and the board he represents. I am embarrassed and feel it is most unfortunate you were verbally assaulted in such a manner. Again, thank you for your hard work, dedication, and role modeling of appropriate response when we agree to disagree without bullying the other person.”