Ahead of the June 25 West Tisbury annual town election, we reached out to incumbent Kent Healy and challenger Michael Bellissimo, who are running for a three-year seat on the board of selectmen. Each candidate shared responses to questions on seven town issues. Polls will open at 11 am and close at 7 pm at the West Tisbury Public Safety Building on State Road.
How might you use your role as selectman to foster more participation in West Tisbury town government? For example, the fire department consists of mostly older men, and has had a challenging time recruiting new volunteer firefighters.
Michael Bellissimo: I have served in leadership positions in healthcare at the Cleveland Clinic and Humana. I have served in town government on the West Tisbury Housing Bank, the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority Board, and the Dukes County Health Council. I have also shadowed the board of selectmen since March at all of their meetings, and have attended several town committee meetings. I know how our town government is run, and I understand the challenges. I can hit the ground running day one.
This took preparation. We can prepare others by encouraging and supporting them to do the same, not by occupying positions for decades. We can commit to grooming potential successors through service on committees or in volunteer positions, such as in the fire department. Leadership is necessary there too, and it would be terrific to rotate some of our excellent first responders into roles in town government. The town needs more new and diverse voices if it is going to successfully address the challenges ahead. 2020 problems require 2020 solutions!
Kent Healy: Town elected and appointed employees should continually be looking for their replacement.
What is an issue important to you, and central to your platform as a candidate?
Bellissimo: I am running because like most in our community, I wake up every day thinking about how we all can continue to live here in changing times, in aging times, and in challenging times. I have lived in and loved West Tisbury for the past 20 years. My daughter went to school here, and my wife started at the Donors Collaborative here. I am worried about the impact of the virus on our health and on our town’s livelihood — that will be my No. 1 focus.
I am also thinking about our town’s livability as it pertains to continuing excellence in education; the limited availability of housing that is affordable for seniors, our workers, and our families; the maintenance of our town’s infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and buildings; the effect of climate change on our environment; and the unreliability of VTA [Vineyard Transportation Authority] and SSA [Steamship Authority] transportation. This will be my day-to-day focus.
Last, I am energized by the opportunities ahead to continue to enable all of us to call West Tisbury home. Guided by a vision that preserves our rural nature while embracing thoughtful change is a great way to ensure that we continue to be a place people want to come to live, work, and retire.
Healy: How to adjust town government to the rapidly changing conditions.
Tisbury Great Pond is frequently closed to oystering and other shellfishing. What action would you take to clean up the bacteria that repeatedly contaminates that waterbody?
Bellissimo: I have spent a lot of time kayaking many of our Island’s ponds, and it is wonderful to experience them as wildlife does. It is an important reminder that these waterways may provide us sustenance and pleasure, but for the wildlife it is home. As good stewards of their home, how do we eliminate the use of harmful chemicals in farming, how do we prevent our wastewater from making its way into the ponds, and how do we allow the ponds to flush naturally? For the past 20 years, the condition of portions of Tisbury Great Pond has gotten worse. Our watershed is interconnected all across the Island. Pollutants entering far upstream are having tremendous downstream impact. There is technology that can help address and remove the bacteria in the water, but first we need to identify and stop the causes. Since we share Tisbury Great Pond with Chilmark, this would be an excellent way to show Island-wide collaboration and cooperation. The M.V. Commission has studied the problem, and back in 2013 made a series of recommendations. Let’s act on those recommendations.
Healy: I have been involved in the activities on Tisbury Great Pond since 1952, when I was employed by the Quansoo Shellfish Co. dragging for oysters. The state has historically closed areas of the pond to shellfishing when the coliform count (an easily measured bacteria present in all warm-blooded animals) is too high. These areas have generally been the coves where the bird population is great. Shell fishing is permitted by the towns, Chilmark and West Tisbury, when harvesting is appropriate.
What initiatives would you back to further protect West Tisbury citizens from the novel coronavirus, and future pandemic pathogens?
Bellissimo: Like everyone, I am fearful of what this virus means for my family today, and what it means for our future. I have been serving on the County Health Council to find a way to communicate more effectively about what is happening and what to expect. I also just began serving as a testing volunteer at MVRHS [Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School]. No one could have been prepared for the impact of this pandemic, but in its wake we are seeing the vulnerabilities on our Island with how we are governed and in the fragility of our economy. Folks have lost work, some will lose their businesses, and we need to work together to allow business to thrive again without unnecessary restriction. Our schools are essential, and we need to work together on how to sensibly reopen them too, so folks can work and our children and teachers can thrive. While Island-wide, our select boards did their best with shifting information, there is room for improvement in how we collaborate and cooperate with each other, how we communicate with consistency to the general public, and how we make our No. 1 priority the care of every individual on the island. This pandemic knows no boundaries.
Healy: Epidemics by pathogens are best dealt with by good education and local regulation.
The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Hall and grounds have received repeated scrutiny for various events its trustees sought to host. Do you believe the trustees have pushed the envelope of the agricultural restrictions on the property, or kept within them? And would you support expanded use of the property?
Bellissimo: My family has been a lifetime member of the Ag Society for the past 20 years. We enjoyed our daughter’s West Tisbury School graduation there, and numerous holiday pageants. The Ag Society has provided immense benefit to the entire Island for decades, and with the pandemic, has stepped up to host the biweekly farmers market and the recent oyster giveaway. Aside from the fact that their charter gives them broad leeway to recommend the best use of the facility, we should applaud and support their being good stewards of our Island’s culture and way of life. Being available for the high school graduation in July is another example. To the extent that town government needs to be involved, it should be to support, guide, and resource where necessary. We are lucky to have such a large and beautiful open space to take advantage of in our town. Let’s put all of our support behind them.
Healy: The town must remember and keep its promise to the Woods family.
As home values rise in town, how would you foster greater affordability for young families?
Bellissimo: As a member of the West Tisbury Housing Bank and former member of the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority Board, I am very concerned about the need for more affordable housing in our town for young families just getting started, those who work in our town as teachers and first responders, and for seniors who are aging out of their current homes. I just convened an all-Island meeting of housing agencies to discuss ways we can fund the need, which is projected to be seven to 10 units per year in West Tisbury, according to the Island Housing Trust. The best approach seems to be a combination of public and private funding, supported by the planning board and zoning board of appeals. These 10 units are best thought of as co-housing, accessory housing, redesigned existing housing, and some new construction. We have been talking about this for a long time, and West Tisbury has led the way on the Island. It is time we execute on the plan set forth in the 2016 housing production plan for West Tisbury. Affordable housing is essential housing.
Healy: Housing in popular places is always scarcer and more expensive.
Do you support keeping the West Tisbury transfer station, or closing it in favor of an expanded facility in Edgartown?
Bellissimo: I have watched with dismay and concern while many seniors in our community try to hoist large bags of trash with no assistance into the temporary bins, since the failure of the transfer station wall months ago. I have listened to the discussion and debate and study at a few [board of selectmen’s] meetings now, and am left wondering, Why have we not gotten on with it and done the necessary repairs? Closing the transfer station would mean a long drive out to Edgartown in the winter, which is unsafe for many, and long lines in the summer competing with other towns to dispose of trash. That makes no sense. A theme you will hear from me is, once we study an issue, we need to get on with a decision and lead. I do not understand why our current board of selectmen is not bringing this issue to resolution. I will.
Healy: I have designed, and will supervise, with town authorization, the construction of safety improvements, as required by the [Martha’s Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District].