Oak Bluffs selectmen did not make a decision at their meeting Tuesday night regarding the two plaques honoring Confederate soldiers in Ocean Park, but instead set a meeting next month to discuss the issue.
The issue came to light four weeks ago when the Island’s chapter of the NAACP requested they be removed.
Discussion picked up right where it left off last month when the Island’s NAACP president, Erik Blake, who is also the Oak Bluffs police chief, asked that a forum be held as soon as possible. He reiterated the organization’s request was only for the removal of the plaques — not the statue.
“We remain steadfast that [the plaques] need to be in a museum where all history is,” Blake said. “We took a vote and we would appreciate the selectmen honoring the resolution we did.”
Blake went on to say there has been “troubling” talk in town.
“It saddens me,” he said. “It just proves that for us that chasm is not closed and that plaque needs to be in its rightful place.”
Selectman Gail Barmakian said, for her, the issue is complex. She added the Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes Confederate soldiers as veterans.
The decision to remove the two plaques is ultimately left up to selectmen, who can vote to remove them or allow voters to decide through a ballot question.
The meeting was contentious at times with heated exchanges and people interrupting each other.
Clennon King, a Roxbury resident and frequent Island visitor, said setting a meeting in a month is not the way to go because many of the Island’s seasonal black residents would not be able to attend the meeting.
“This whole thing is about race at the end of the day,” King said.
“No it isn’t,” Kevin Keaney said, interrupting King.
“There’s a bunch of voices with a bunch of dollars who are not being heard and you guys are sitting here making meetings, closed meetings, that they don’t have a voice in…it’s unfair,” King said.
For Gretchen Tucker Underwood, the NAACP’s request is to take down the plaques that honors a group of men that committed treason against the United States and wanted to continue the institution of slavery.
“I’m asking you to make a decision as selectmen which we asked you to do,” Tucker Underwood said. “It is tearing this town apart.”
Several people in the audience balked at Keany’s request for discussion to be specific to the plaques’ wording and to not include discussion about the history or race.
“The only division that’s been created here is what’s been brought to this room,” Keaney said. “Up until now, there’s been no division in this town.”
Selectman Greg Coogan said the board is hesitant to make a decision until they gathered all the information they could.
“We need to make a decision,” Coogan said. “No matter what we do, to a lot of people we will be the bad guys and to a lot of people we’ll be the good guys. There’s no win for us to be in the middle here.”
Several people in the audience asked for the forum to be held on the weekend, but selectmen chose to hold the forum on Tuesday, May 21, from 6 to 8 pm. A location has yet to be decided.
In other business, selectmen voted 4-1 to deny holding a special town meeting that would ask voters to approve the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School’s use of $350,000 in excess and deficiency (E and D) funds to offset the $1.4 million cost of a feasibility study for the track and field.
Last month, the school committee discovered its past practice of using E and D funds was illegal. If the school committee votes to use E and D, they must notify the towns of that vote within seven days, and allow them to have 45 days to call a special town meeting and vote to approve the school’s decision. By saying no to the town meeting, the town is essentially endorsing the use of the funds by the school committee.
Barmakian, the lone no vote, said the decision should be put to the voters for the funding and design.
Kris O’Brien, the school committee’s chairman and the town’s representative, said the money is in a fund and will not be raised through taxes or a capital expense.
“We desperately need a new track,” selectman Brian Packish said.
After a year as vice chairman, Packish was voted the new chairman of the board of selectmen. Selectman Jason Balboni will be vice chairman. Packish takes the helm after Barmakian’s year-long tenure.
“Thanks Gail. Working with you for the last year obviously had its ups and downs. I appreciate the opportunity,” Packish said. “It certainly will serve me well as I segue into this next chapter.”
Selectmen also approved the Martha’s Vineyard Little League opening day parade on Saturday, April 27, at 9:30 am. The parade will start at the police station, go up Circuit Avenue, and finish at Viera Park. Players will then have their opening ceremony at Penn Field.