Meetings are for public business

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Where do we begin with the Tisbury and Oak Bluffs boards of selectmen?

While we appreciate that Tisbury publicly acknowledged the mistake they made by posting a meeting agenda to be held in Boston while they were at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, we remain concerned that several of them still think it would have been “legal” to meet and discuss town business because it was posted with the town clerk.

The board did post the meeting on the bulletin board outside the town clerk’s office, but didn’t follow any of its typical protocols, which include posting the agenda on the town’s website and sending out an email to people who sign up for them online. In short, it gave the appearance they were trying to sneak one by the public.

We won’t know for certain if that would have been legal because the state Attorney General’s office was unwilling to clarify without an official appeal to consider. Since the town has acknowledged its mistake, that’s where our complaint ends. But let’s just say that the posted meeting would have been ruled legal as some town leaders contend. Legal is one thing; appropriate is a whole different animal. It’s never OK to make it nearly impossible for the general public to attend a meeting or to make it appear you’re doing the town’s business in secret. Requiring a ferry ride and a drive to Boston on a Saturday basically would have turned it into a private meeting.

And there is certainly no way to legitimize the agenda these board members planned to discuss — specifically “Beach Road developments” and “committee mission statements and charges.”

Consider the harm done by listing these as possible topics of comment, given the public interest in them.

There is a lot of pushback on the project proposed by the Hales to expand Martha’s Vineyard Shipyard, one of the “Beach Road developments” that’s currently being considered. While the selectmen gave the Hales a forum to present the expansion plans, they weren’t willing to give opponents the same forum (up until hours before last Wednesday’s meeting), and the reasoning made little sense.

Asked about that, selectmen chair Melinda Loberg told The Times she allowed James and Phil Hale to present because the board wanted the public to be able to see a presentation on the project. She initially rejected the request from Lagoon Pond Association and other organizations to speak because selectmen don’t have a vote on the permits. That ignored the fact that the Hales had requested a letter of support from selectmen, which they got during Wednesday’s meeting. (In a side rant, it’s also terrible optics to tell the public you will consider the letter of support at your Feb. 4 meeting and then actually do it on Jan. 29.)

That other topic for Boston? Considering “committee mission statements and charges?” Our guess is it had to do with the fledgling natural resources committee, which is an unmitigated disaster. The town disbanded other committees — shellfish and harbor management, among them — in the hopes of streamlining, but the natural resources committee has said it doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be doing. Selectmen need to have that conversation publicly, and they need to do it sooner rather than later. And just to be clear, they need to have that discussion in Tisbury in the Katharine Cornell. (Using microphones would be a plus!)

You could also argue the public has tremendous interest in a third agenda item — the “spring and summer festival schedule,” particularly since that seemed to be about the encore of Beach Road Weekend, which was ultimately approved at the Jan. 29 meeting.

While we don’t think the board ever intended to vote on these issues in Boston, the optics of even discussing them without the public are wrong and violate the public trust.

Meanwhile, in Oak Bluffs, selectmen also held a questionable “public meeting” on Saturday after announcing on Friday that embattled Fire Chief John Rose would resign. The emergency meeting was posted at 3:45 pm on Friday and held at 3:30 pm Saturday.

The state’s Open Meeting Law does allow for emergency meetings, and defines them as “a sudden, generally unexpected occurrence or set of circumstances demanding immediate action.”

We’re not sure what the immediate action to be taken was in this instance. But the board of selectmen could have told both Island newspapers about the meeting in an email. They certainly have our contact information. It also would have taken a click of a mouse to post it on the town’s website.

Instead, they posted it on the town hall door, and didn’t bother to alert the public. Given the number of people who showed up for a meeting Jan. 14 where the chief was discussed, we’d say there would have been a lot of public interest in Saturday’s meeting. 

Too often elected officials forget they are conducting the public’s business. Though it can be messy, and uncomfortable, that doesn’t mean it can be done in private.

Both Tisbury and Oak Bluffs boards of selectmen have some trust building to do.