Aquinnah election causes some confusion

Adam Wilson was elected as an assessor, but he won't join that board until he leaves his job as town administrator July 6. — Stacey Rupolo

Adam Wilson was elected to the Aquinnah board of assessors, but he can’t start just yet.

Mr. Wilson, who ousted long-time incumbent Michael Stutz by a vote of 75-57, has to wait until he vacates his job as town administrator. He has filed a letter with the town clerk setting July 6 as his last day in the town’s top job. State law prohibits a town administrator from holding an elected position.

“I technically can’t start yet,” Mr. Wilson said.

That means Mr. Stutz can remain on the board until Mr. Wilson can be sworn in, according to an opinion issued May 12 by Ronald Rappaport, the town’s legal counsel.

There is no set time period for Mr. Wilson to be sworn in, Rappaport wrote.

“In my opinion, and in the opinion of labor counsel, the delayed swearing in of Mr. Wilson to his position as an assessor does not conflict with or violate any state law or town bylaw and is therefore permissible,” he wrote.

The election adds a new and confusing twist to what’s been a drama-filled time for the board of assessors — with Mr. Stutz ousted, but apparently still a member until Mr. Wilson can be sworn in, and the board already facing a shortage of bodies with the resignation of Darren Leport before the election.

The race between Mr. Wilson and Mr. Stutz was the only contested race on the town election ballot, which attracted 38 percent of the town’s 354 registered voters, Town Clerk Carolyn Feltz said.

The last remaining elected member of the board, Elise LeBovit, and the board of selectmen also have some unfinished business before Mr. Wilson comes on board — choosing a replacement for Mr. Leport’s unfinished term on the board.

“They don’t need me for that,” Mr. Wilson said.

In an interview Monday, before he knew that he could stay on until Mr. Wilson is sworn in, Mr. Stutz said the board of assessors is hamstrung by Mr. Wilson’s inability to join the board immediately. In a follow-up email Tuesday, Mr. Stutz wrote that he had not been officially notified that he’s still an assessor until Mr. Wilson is sworn in. “Maybe it makes sense for continuity and all, but seems antidemocratic to me,” he wrote.

Mr. Stutz was disappointed by the election outcome. He told The Times assessors “stepped on a lot of toes” in setting fair and equal tax evaluations in town, which he thinks played a role in him losing to Mr. Wilson.

The fate of the assessors board has dominated selectmen’s meetings in recent months. Angela Cywinski, the department’s paid assessor, has been publicly questioning Mr. Wilson’s motivation to join the board, saying she feels targeted by him. She also publicly questioned a proposal to change the board from elected to appointed, which was scrapped at the last minute. In order to make that change, voters would have to approve it at town meeting and on the town ballot. Those elections have to be at least 60 days apart, but town meeting and the town election were scheduled one day apart.

Reached Tuesday, Ms. Cywinski said her office is likely to feel the loss of Mr. Stutz, who had more than 20 years of experience. “He had all that knowledge, and to lose that is hard,” she said.

Her office, which has to complete revaluations of properties in town this year, is in a state of flux. Unless a certified assessor is found to replace Mr. Stutz to fill the void left by Mr. Leport’s resignation, she will be left with three junior members on the board once Mr. Wilson is sworn in.

“I can’t do anything. I can’t send out tax bills. I’m hobbled,” she said, noting the lack of quorum unless Mr. Stutz agrees to stay on. She has been approached by two selectmen and Ms. Feltz with the hopes of making it a smooth transition. “I’m just waiting to see,” she said. “It’s going to be an interesting year.”

Mr. Wilson said this week Ms. Cywinski has nothing to worry about. He appreciates the work she’s done, and her abilities in carrying out the duties of the assessors’ department. What he didn’t like is that the board of assessors had pushed her to write a report about the town’s finances, something he says is the purview of the town’s finance committee, he said.

“[Ms. Cywinski] is very capable and competent, and does the job of assessing well,” he said. “I think the board of assessors is misguided in finding they had to be financial watchdogs of the town.”

The job of assessors is to find more revenues for the town to operate, Mr. Wilson said. “I said so, and was chastised” by Mr. Stutz and Ms. Cywinski, he said.
Mr. Stutz has advocated attempting to get reimbursement from the federal government for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah)’s reservation being within the town borders.

“I raised a fundamental financial, structural issue identifying the 25 percent hole in our budget that’s causing our taxes to rise by 8 percent per year and requiring overrides every year,” he said. “Right now no one is doing anything to solve this problem. My voice has been removed from town government. I’m not terribly hopeful about the future.”

The town’s taxes are “off the charts already,” and Mr. Stutz said he expects they will double every 10 years. “It’s going to make the town of Aquinnah very expensive for what you get in services,” he said.

At a selectmen’s meeting Tuesday, selectman Jim Newman congratulated Mr. Wilson. “We’re glad that you won,” he said. “I’m a little concerned after 14 years to see that this was the foulest, dirtiest, election that I’ve experienced here. And having this anonymous blog that was going around town was a disgrace—was just a disgraceful show on the part of some people.”

Mr. Wilson said he is grateful for the support of voters. “I wanted to thank [Mr. Stutz] for his years of service and his years as chairman, which go back before my time,” he said. “I’m looking forward to getting another member on board, getting a quorum, and getting back to doing what we should have been doing all along, finding more revenue.”

Balancing the town budget is an ongoing issue, he said. In last week’s election, voters also approved a $110,000 Proposition 2½ override. By a vote of 66-65, voters approved the tax hike, which officials said was needed to meet increased public safety and education costs. The boost in the budget will result in an additional $81 per year in taxes for a home valued at $600,000, the town’s average.

Voters also approved two nonbinding ballot questions — one that seeks to ban mopeds on the Island by an overwhelming 128-4 and the other meant to endorse a regional housing bank on the Vineyard, which was approved 106-20.

How to replace Mr. Wilson

Now that he’ll no longer be town administrator, a job he’s held for a little more than six years, town leaders have to consider how to replace Mr. Wilson.

Along with his responsibilities as town administrator, Mr. Wilson greeted town residents, answered phones, and took bill payments, because so many other departments at town hall are manned by part-time employees. It’s a job he’s described in the past as a “burnout” job.

“I knew what I was getting into when I took the job,” he said. “When I came in for my interview, I saw where the selectmen’s office was located, and knew I was going to be right out front.”

Mr. Wilson said he turned his desk around so he could face the public coming into town hall. Still, he questions whether it makes sense to have someone paid $45 per hour to act as a receptionist for the town.

“There’s definitely an analysis going on,” he said.

Mr. Wilson has turned over information to Kathy Newman, chairman of the town’s personnel board. He’s even floated the idea of hiring part-time people as receptionists and making the town administrator’s job part-time, but keeping it strictly to the management roles.

“It’s always difficult to be town administrator in a small town,” he said. “You don’t get as much support as you do in other towns.”

Ms. Newman went to the board of selectmen on Tuesday to seek direction. “We’re going to put our heads together,” she told The Times Monday.