Every once in awhile a town government gets into the weeds. Members of a board or boards begin to feud, and they lose sight of their primary responsibility, which is to govern and to carry forward the business of the town.
Last December, selectmen voted unanimously to enlist the Oak Bluffs Planning Board (OBPB) to oversee the public outreach for a new town hall, in hopes of getting it on the town meeting warrant in April. But what looked like the beginning of inter-board cooperation, a stated goal of the OBPB, has disintegrated into finger-pointing and grandstanding.
The OBPB was right to put on the brakes on the selectmen and to prioritize public hearings and public survey over rushing the 2014 plans to the 2016 town meeting floor. The survey revealed valuable information. It showed a town divided on a new town hall. It also showed a substantial percentage of voters didn’t know just how bad conditions were in there. Most townspeople spend little if any time in town hall. But the people who work there, the people who make the trains run for the town, are working in substandard, unhealthy conditions, where they sweat in the summer and freeze in the winter, or vice versa depending on what part of the building they’re in.
Meanwhile, boards bicker.
“Process” has been the buzzword for the OBPB. But with town hall, process has become posturing. Process under OBPB supervision has been going on for 11 months. The formation of a new building committee, while not under the supervision of the OBPB, can be the next step; participation in the process is not an endorsement of the project. It’s what the members were elected to do. According to Massachusetts General Laws, Title VII, Chapter 41, Section 81C, “The planning board … shall from time to time make careful studies and when necessary prepare plans of the resources, possibilities and needs of the city or town, and, upon the completion of any such study, shall submit to the city council or selectmen a report thereon, with its recommendations.”
The OBPB maintains it doesn’t have enough information on options — the cost of fixing the current town hall, as opposed to building a new one — to bless a building committee. But that question was answered in July 2013, when the initial feasibility study done by Keenan + Kenny architects revealed that the foundation of the building, made in part from beach sand in 1938, was literally crumbling. The architects showed that renovating the building was not as cost-effective as new construction.
The OBPB said it needed more information on the condition of all town buildings. Not surprisingly, town hall received the only failing grade. This July, building inspector Mark Barbadoro surveyed town hall, and documented in detail the unsafe and unhealthy conditions, and its litany of ADA violations.
At Thursday’s meeting, attended by Times reporter Barry Stringfellow, longtime FinCom member Steve Auerbach asked, rightly, why the OBPB was feeling so disrespected, given the town hall survey and town building survey had been done, just as the board requested, and clear results were gained from both. He asked Brian Packish, chairman of the OBPB, to be specific about concrete steps the OBPB feels are missing. He got no specific answer. When Mr. Auerbach said he had a different perspective on the matter from the OBPB, he was dismissed outright by Mr. Packish: “We’ve heard your perspective a number of times. We all know where you stand, and it’s not going to change my mind.”
Mr. Packish said at last Thursday’s meeting that his requests to present the OBPB survey results to the selectmen had been repeatedly denied. Chairman Gail Barmakian told The Times this week that she has no memory of his requests. Irrespective of whose memory is more accurate, it’s time to put ego aside and get on with the process. The town hall survey results have been available for all to see for months, as was reported in The Times in May (May 18, “Oak Bluffs Planning Board reveals town hall survey results”).
The OBPB has accomplished a good deal in the past two years, and made good on its promise for increased outreach. It rightly fought for increased funding, and the resulting modest allocation enabled the OBPB to hire MacGregor Anderson, who, in his part-time capacity, has done a yeoman’s job of bringing order after years of administrative chaos and neglect.
In March of this year, the board did an outstanding job of renegotiating the permit for the Southern Woodlands, with terms that resulted in a financial windfall for the town.
But the board picking up its ball and going home rather than working with a town hall building committee of 13 townspeople with an impressive diversity of talents is hubris, not process.
In a January 2015 interview with The Times about the “new OBPB,” member Ewell Hopkins said, “The process is fundamentally busted. There are many anecdotal examples that show the lack of appreciation for a collaborative approach in the town. Any time 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.”
The OBPB has reached this level of arrogance.
Pick up your ball and get back in the game.
It’s part of the process.
It’s time to stop squabbling, mend fences, and move on. To figure out how much a new town hall will cost, show the number and the plans to the residents, get a yes or no, and make the next move. A no could mean Oak Bluffs taxpayers are shy about taking on that much more debt, and that may mean reducing the price. It could mean taxpayers don’t like the design. A yes could mean Oak Bluffs residents don’t want a civil servant to fall through the floorboards at work.