Sum of $25,000 sought for Tisbury School voter education

Request for funds appears to run counter to Massachusetts law.

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The Tisbury School Building Committee is seeking $25,000 to educate voters on the project to renovate and add onto the school. — Rich Saltzberg

Updated Jan. 12

The Tisbury School Building Committee voted unanimously Wednesday night to request $25,000 for voter education on the $53.2 million renovation and addition project for the Tisbury School. The move appears to run afoul of Massachusetts campaign finance law. Massachusetts campaign finance law stipulates that public resources cannot be used for political purposes such as ballot campaigns to build a school. Nobody at Wednesday’s meeting appeared cognizant of that. Jason Tait, a spokesman for the Office of Campaign and Political Finance declined to speak with The Times about Tisbury specifically and instead said generally speaking, privately funded ballot committees are the proper vehicles for ballot campaigns. 

Chair Harold Chapdelaine brought the town funding idea forward Wednesday under topics not reasonably anticipated by the chair. Chapdelaine said he’d recently exchanged emails with town administrator John “Jay” Grande over access to funding for “voter information services.”

Emails obtained by The Times through a public records request show on Jan. 6 Grande wrote Chapdelaine and copied town counsel David Doneski, owner’s project manager Richard Marks, town accountant Suzanne Kennedy, finance director Jonathan Snyder, and select board chair Jim Rogers. 

“You mentioned a cost of $25,000 for the production of the video,” Grande wrote. “If the committee decides to pursue the video, I need a motion to request the select board to approve a ‘reserve fund transfer’ for this amount. I assume this is on your agenda tonight. The select Board can act on it next Tuesday, January 12, 2021 and refer to FINCOM.  FINCOM can review and act on the request January 13, 2021.  You need to submit a written justification.”

Grande went on to write, “You also referenced two weeks to get this going.  Please understand there is a procurement process for these services. The estimated cost exceeds $10,000 and you will be required to send out a written request for price quotes to three vendors.  Therefore, I will need a written description and three vendors to send out request[s] for quotes.”

Chapdelaine wrote Grande, select board chair Jim Rogers, and committee member Reade Milne on Jan. 7 to clarify the purpose and dollar amount of the funds requested. 

“The intent of the funding is for voter education,” Chapdelaine wrote. “[W]ith COVID we are limited in our ability to educate the electorate.”

He went on to write, “[$]25,000 is a total budget inclusive of video, mailing, newspaper inserts and some newspaper advertising. Each would be a separate expenditure.” He also wrote that the he’s hoping the video will cost less than $10,000.

In his response, Grande noted the request would be addressed at a regularly scheduled select board meeting and again the next day, at a joint meeting with the finance committee. 

“Very helpful Harold,” Grande wrote.  “We can refine the scope and cost for each element and vendor. The request is on the Select Board agenda for the 12th in the amount of $25,000 for the items enumerated and then Fincom can consider on the 13th.”

 

In an email to Grande, Tisbury finance director Jonathan Snyder suggested ways a traditional bid process might be avoided. 

“At Fincom last night, one question came up about the plan to spend $25k for a marketing push,” Snyder wrote. “If the individual pieces of the plan are less than $10,000, we might not need three bids. For example, if the plan was to produce the video, buy advertising space, and produce and mail a brochure to voters, each costing less than $9,000, each piece would be a separate purchase.”

“Given the conditions with COVID and our inability to hold public workshops,” Chapdelaine  said at the building committee meeting, “we as the Tisbury School Building Committee really have an obligation to educate the voters.”

Chapdelaine asked the committee to authorize a request to the select board to channel a request for funds to the finance committee for $25,000 in emergency funds. 

He stressed the money would be for “voter education and nothing more than that.”

“I think this need to be done a little differently,” Rogers, who serves on the committee, said. “The school building committee doesn’t have a budget. They don’t have resources. They don’t have the ability to spend money. So therefore you can’t ask the [finance committee] for a transfer.”

Chapdelaine asked if the select board should handle the request. 

Rogers said such a request should “go to Jay Grande and then he would apprise the board of what’s going and the board would have to request a transfer.”

He went on to say the board will then decide “if they fund it and how they fund it.”

Rogers went on to say seasonal home owners deserve to be looped in. 

“I think we need to do something to get the message out to the voters and the taxpayers and especially to the nonresident taxpayers,” he said, “many of which own larger-scale homes in the Town of Tisbury. So they’ll be paying a greater bulk of the expense if this project passes, yet they’re not here to vote. So we need to develop a process to make sure we get the information out to everybody. The only concern I have is the optic of asking people for $25,000 right now.”

The town has talked about a spring town meeting vote on the project followed by a ballot question.

Chapdelaine said he had contemplated “reaching voters through video, through mailings, through ads in the newspaper.”

He went on to say, “It is my intention that our next school building committee meeting will be focused on what methods are appropriate getting this information distributed.”

In a second conversation with The Times, Tait from the Office of Campaign and Political Finance, recommended municipalities take a conservative approach if there’s any question as to what a third party like an architect can lawfully provide as taxpayer-funded information. Before spending “even one dollar,” he recommended municipalities seek advice from staff attorneys in his office.

It looks as though Tisbury is on the road to doing just that.

“I’ve learned a member of our Owner’s Project Management Team has been in contact with the Office of Campaign & Political Finance prior to last week as another community is in a similar situation,” Chapdeliane wrote The Times Monday.  “We will pursue more guidance from OCPF as needed.  As I stated last week COVID has had an impact on the traditional means of communicating with the community.  We [TSBC] are trying to find an appropriate and legal path to do so.”
The meeting Wednesday night was also held jointly with the town’s historic commission. After thoughtful deliberation with the commission and architect Chris Blessen, the committee voted to endorse the schematic designs to date with the caveat more tinkering may be done on the administrative wing of the school and also with the caveat that the commission would be given the opportunity to weigh in again as the project progresses. 

Chapdelaine, who is also chair of the historic commission, abstained from the vote.

Historic commissioner Craig Whitaker, who is an architect, gave Blessen a good deal of praise for his design work. 

 

Updated with emails obtained from a records request.