It was another interesting second Tuesday in April, with four towns kicking off their town meetings simultaneously. West Tisbury stretched into a second night, and Tisbury voters just couldn’t get enough of each other, going for three nights. Oak Bluffs and Edgartown finished things off in one night. Here are some observations and suggestions while we wait for Chilmark (April 22) and Aquinnah (May 14) to hold their annual town meetings:
If you have a ceremony planned to open town meeting, you should go forward with it when the meeting is supposed to begin. On Tuesday, Tisbury moderator Deborah Medders waited until 7:30 pm to get things going, even though there was already clearly a quorum in the meeting room. The next 15 minutes were taken up with a much-deserved tribute to selectman Tristan Israel, who has decided to retire as a selectman after 24 years. When the ceremony and housekeeping business was over, it was nearly 8 pm before the meeting even got started. We have no problem with the public tribute, but there was no need to wait until everyone was checked in to do that.
Tisbury wasn’t the only place that waited for voters to be checked in. Can we find a way to fix this? Maybe tell voters that they need to arrive a half-hour before the meeting time to be checked in? Doctors do it. And the Red Sox did it with their Opening Day ceremonies, urging fans to be in their seats by 12:45 for the 1 pm ring ceremony. If you’re not there and ready to go when the meeting starts, you really have nothing to complain about.
While the civility of the debate in Oak Bluffs was applauded by at least one observer, we’re still struck by the woman in Edgartown who went on a verbal tirade at that meeting — even slamming the door and cursing in the face of an Edgartown Police officer who was working at the meeting as a constable and attempted to calm her down as she stormed out. We’d like to say it was surprising, but sadly these days we’re never shocked when disagreeing turns into being disagreeable.
On a more positive note, we were quite taken by the youth movement in West Tisbury, where student after student went to the microphone to articulately, passionately, and respectfully speak in favor of a ban on single-use plastic bottles. We’d already seen the students of Plastic Free MV in action on a recent tour of Cronig’s and holding public forums ahead of the vote, so we weren’t surprised in the least. Congratulations to them, their teachers, and their parents. They should all be proud of what is believed to be a first-in-the-nation effort to ban these plastic bottles. We’ll see you at the water dispenser with our reusable cups.
The Housing Bank idea is on life support, and it’s too bad. The overall idea is a good one — more year-round housing for Island workers — but the execution was troubling, and now an opportunity is lost. Once that revenue from short-term rental taxes makes its way into the general funds of each of the towns, you won’t be able to extricate it with the Jaws of Life. The campaign for the Housing Bank idea should be a case study in how not to approach an issue where you need buy-in. Instead of going to community leaders for some thoughtful guidance, Housing Bank proponents pushed ahead with their idea and floated the idea that it could evolve while it was before the legislature. They also never quite explained how the extra layer of governance would work. (Aquinnah would have the same exact vote as Tisbury?) Basically, they said, pass it now and trust us to adjust it later. Had they asked for just a percentage of the “new money” towns would be getting from the short-term rental taxes, we wonder if it would have been better received. (Instead, they asked for 50 percent of all money received, including existing rooms tax revenue from hotels, something that many felt was an overreach.) There’s still a chance the Housing Bank could pass in Chilmark and Aquinnah, but it doesn’t seem likely that both towns will approve it, and it falls far short of fixing an Islandwide problem, particularly when the areas with the most year-round residents said a resounding no.
Edgartown has the prettiest venue for town meeting, West Tisbury has the best light, and Oak Bluffs has the most comfortable seating. And then there’s Tisbury, in the cramped, dark gymnasium at Tisbury School — people so crammed into the bleachers that it sometimes takes several minutes for a voter to get to the microphone to ask a question or speak to an issue. Perhaps that’s the best advertisement that despite last year’s vote, either fixing Tisbury School or building a new one remains tops on the town’s to-do list.