Oak Bluffs candidates address the issues

Three candidates are vying for two seats on the Oak Bluffs select board.

From left, Rich Michelson, Jason Balboni, and Emma Green-Beach vie for two open seats on the Oak Bluffs select board.

Incumbent Jason Balboni and newcomers Emma Green-Beach and Rich Michelson are the three candidates vying for two open seats on the Oak Bluffs select board, in the town’s only contested race.

Balboni, the current chair of the town’s executive board, is seeking a second term, having first been elected in 2018. Balboni ran Balboni Appliance Service in Oak Bluffs, and has served on the town’s finance and advisory committee and personnel board.

Green-Beach is a shellfish biologist, and the executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group. She is a former Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellow.

Michelson last ran for the select board in 2018, but was third in voting behind Greg Coogan, who is not seeking re-election, and Balboni. He is a former EMT and a former Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission member.

The Times sent questions to each candidate to get their views on Circuit Avenue parking, downtown street closures, the town’s off-Island ambulance service, and more.

The town election will be held on Thursday, April 15, from 10 am to 7 pm at the Oak Bluffs Public Library.

Why are you running for the Oak Bluffs select board?

Balboni: I am currently running for re-election to the board of selectmen. I feel that my passion and dedication has driven me to work hard on difficult issues in our town. I would like to continue working with all the groups that make up our community to make our town and Island a better place.

Green-Beach: I am running for a seat on the Oak Bluffs select board, quite simply, because I love Oak Bluffs and I want to give back to the community that raised me. I am a woman — a wife, a mother, and stepmother — of mixed race who was raised by a single, Black mother, and by this community. I will add diversity to the board, and my leadership style will be complementary to those that are already there. My education is in biology and ecology, while my professional training is in nonprofit management. I use a holistic, big-picture approach to problem solving. I will be fresh, open-minded, logical eyes and ears for the select board. My strong science background will be helpful as we adapt to climate change and try to improve the health of our ponds, before they are no longer sources of food, commerce, and recreation.

Michelson: Something that makes me very proud and makes it a joy to live on the Island and especially Oak Bluffs is its diversity. I am looking forward to adding my experience as a person of color to the rest of the select board to reflect the values that celebrate all of Oak Bluffs’ many ethnicities, races, and genders. Having lived on the Island for 35 years, I believe that I have some useful ideas to contribute. I also have experience being a commissioner on the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, and I’m familiar with town issues, having been an EMT for 17 years with the Oak Bluffs Fire/EMS Department.

Do you think the town should alter parking on a portion of Circuit Avenue from diagonal to parallel parking, per the town’s streetscape plan? Explain why or why not.

Balboni: The proposed parking restructure that is being discussed for Circuit Ave. has been going through a process that will end up at the board of selectmen for final decisions. I can see the pros and cons of either diagonal or parallel parking. At this time I think that it would be inappropriate to comment on my view before hearing all the public comments. 

Green-Beach: I do not feel strongly about the parking orientation in the streetscape plan. What I do feel strongly about is the fact this is an opportunity to improve the downtown area in creative ways. This is our chance to plan for the future, and also our chance to revise the layout of the town to reflect the town we have become, or the town we want to be. Personally, I think that pedestrian safety and experience are important. I would like Circuit Avenue to send the message to both visitors and Islanders that Oak Bluffs welcomes them, wants them to sit, browse, eat, and gather. I would like families with strollers and elders with walkers to feel comfortable being in town while other members of their party shop, for example. I don’t think that the streetscape plan is meant to cater to tourists or to business exclusively. It is not about us or them, it’s about all of us. The businesses are our friends and neighbors, and the tourists contribute a significant portion of our economic fuel. None of our individual needs exist in a vacuum, and that is why there have been so many public meetings on this project. 

Michelson: Since I’ve announced myself for the select board, people have been approaching me saying they’re not for the parking changes on Circuit Avenue. I attended the streetscape public forum on Zoom Monday. It seems to me the majority of citizens are against the parking. One of my responsibilities as a select board member is to listen to the people. At this point I feel those that have wanted a say have said no. So I think we should improve the area the best we can without changing the parking.

What do you think are some of the most important traits for the next town administrator?

Balboni: The town administrator wears many hats. It is important to find someone who can put our town first. They will need to be able to work closely with our town departments, boards, committees, and the community. The administrator will need strong budgeting skills to help keep the finances in line. Negotiating skills are a must, as we continue to work with the other towns on the Island to look for solutions to regional problems.

Green-Beach: Besides the obvious positive traits of honesty, integrity, and good organization skills, the next town manager needs to be diplomatic, communicative, and creative. Robert Whritenour was good at obtaining grant funding to help the town get things done without it costing the taxpayers. This will need to continue in order to keep taxes down while still making necessary repairs, modifications, and improvements to various features of the town. I enjoy grant writing, and I hope to have the opportunity to assist. I hope that the new town administrator will have the personal skills to be able to unite department heads and board chairs, as well as managers from other towns on island and in the region. The administrator needs to be someone who can foster respectful and trusting working relationships while also managing the many, many programs, projects, and aspects of Oak Bluffs.

Michelson: Experience in finance, planning, budgeting for a town that receives federal and state grants and other funding streams. He or she should have all pertinent education and training and certifications needed for the job. It should if at all possible be a priority that they live on the Island. One of their priorities should be to exercise oversight over all town departments.

How will you address street closures on Circuit Avenue and Kennebec Avenue this summer? Should it be eliminated, expanded, made permanent?

Balboni: When you consider shutting down Circuit Ave. and Kennebec Ave., you have to think of our residents as well as our businesses. What might seem good for one may greatly impact another. Last year we worked with the different groups in an open discussion to try to make things work best for all. Some of the businesses sacrificed so that others could salvage their season. Whatever decision that is made, I will make sure that everyone has an opportunity to have their voice heard.

Green-Beach: If the majority of businesses found it beneficial, then I would most likely encourage another season of Sunday street closures, and perhaps an expansion. Unfortunately, not everyone has a business model that is flexible enough to move outside for the day. As the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, dining and gathering outside are key to our safety and sanity. Even before and after the pandemic, many diners like to eat outside in the warm months. I think it is important for us all to be flexible and compromising on issues like this that are never written in stone, but are ways to support the businesses. Programs like this show that we are willing to give up a little bit of automobile freedom for the greater good of the community. We say that we want a vibrant downtown, and this is a small way to show it. Luckily, we can look at the results and outcomes of the 2020 season and make an informed decision based on that. 

Michelson: I think if it makes sense for the businesses to have both indoor and outdoor services. That should be discussed with input from the same agencies that made these decisions during the pandemic.

Do you have faith in the Steamship Authority’s ability to maintain the terminal in Oak Bluffs, and what would you like to see from the Authority in regard to the terminal and the service it provides, going forward?

Balboni: This past year we have held the Steamship Authority accountable for repairs to the terminal so that we could keep boats coming into Oak Bluffs. Going forward, our representatives to the Steamship port council and board will continue to advocate for our town and our Island to make sure that the Oak Bluffs terminal continues to operate.

Green-Beach: The ferry service to Oak Bluffs is extremely important to the economic viability of the downtown. I would like to see more passenger ferries coming to Oak Bluffs, and other ports such as Edgartown, bringing pedestrians and bikes, and fewer cars. We don’t have much control over how the SSA operates, but we can lean on our representative to look out for the community. I am very supportive of the proposal to switch to electric or hybrid vessels. Fossil-fuel reduction is extremely important to me, and with the potential of supplying that electricity with photovoltaics on SSA property, sounds like a no-brainer to me. The roof over the pedestrian dock could potentially be covered with solar panels to power the boats, save money, preserve air quality around our ports, and also do our part in reducing carbon emissions worldwide. 

Michelson: Because of issues in opening the terminal late and closing it early, the lack of communication with the select board last season, I think the SSA should meet with the board before the season starts and discuss all issues.

What do you think should be done to improve the town’s off-Island ambulance service?

Balboni: The town is currently in negotiations with the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital to help find a way to keep the ambulance service operating without putting a burden on the taxpayers of Oak Bluffs. Many factors, including insurance reimbursements, staffing costs, vehicle purchasing and maintenance cause the cost of running the service to be very expensive.

Green-Beach: With regard to the high cost of an ambulance ride, I think that the town needs to work something out with the hospital. I think that we can engage in respectful and reasonable discussion with the hospital leadership to make sure the department is adequately compensated, but that residents are not charged an excessive amount out of pocket. The hospital leadership has a reputation of being smart, gracious, communicative, and great to work with, so I hope something could be worked out. Mutual respect and communication can go a long way. 

Michelson: Because of management issues and past relationships with other agencies, including the hospital, I think the town should continue discussions with the hospital on a contract to provide the needed services for the town. I also think the select board’s plan to hire both a fire chief and a EMS transport chief should be initiated as soon as possible. 

If the negotiations drag on, I think the town should consider a mediator to help. I also feel the town needs to hire a new billing company so that we stay away from the billing problems and financial issues of the past. We should also look into the astronomical patient bills for transport services, and an explanation to many people, including our elderly and most vulnerable citizens, who are paying thousands of dollars for transports. These bills are on top of insurance companies receiving their payments. I am not happy, as many Oak Bluffs people feel the same.

Are you satisfied with the service and rates provided by the Oak Bluffs Water District, and do you think the town should incorporate it back under town ownership?

Balboni: Clean, safe drinking water is an extremely important resource. I feel that the Oak Bluffs Water District does a good job providing this resource to us. It is never easy to accept rate increases, but I feel the Oak Bluffs Water District is doing what is needed to continue moving forward.

Green-Beach: At this time, I am unaware of a reason to incorporate this Water District back under town ownership. I think the Water District does a good job of providing clean and reliable water, and I personally have benefited from the use of fluoride in our water. We have a knowledgeable staff who care a lot about the resource and about the overall quality of their work. For example, I appreciate that the Oak Bluffs Water District began testing for PFAS ahead of the recommendations by the state. 

Michelson: Their rates are outrageous. I feel like the town should take back control.

Do you support Oak Bluffs and MassDOT’s decision to take land from town residents for construction of the shared-use path (SUP)?

Balboni: The taking of land is never easy, especially if it is your land that is being taken. Although I understand that some may not want their land taken, it is a matter of public safety. As our Island population continues to grow and we attract more visitors, we need to make sure that we provide a safe way for everyone.

Green-Beach: I question some of the aspects of the SUP plan, but I generally think that bicycle safety is very important, and I would like our community to encourage biking both for recreation and as transportation. Taking of private land for public use, or eminent domain, is a common practice throughout the world, and a necessary tool, even when it feels unfair on an individual level. It is certainly unsettling to upset residents with plans of eminent domain. There will be additional public meetings on the SUP, and I hope that residents will attend, listen, and share their thoughts.

Michelson: Yes, I think shared-use paths are beneficial for the health and safety issues of both year-round residents and summer visitors.

Which town departments do you think would make sense to partner with other towns?

Balboni: Shared services are talked about often. Our last attempt was to combine a building commissioner with Tisbury. Unfortunately it was voted down at the Tisbury town meeting. There are other departments that I think could be shared with other towns on the Island. Some of these services that can be shared with other towns could be animal control, shellfish, and building. With employee costs continuing to rise, we will need to look at more and more of these options in the future.

Green-Beach: There are currently a few active partnerships between Oak Bluffs and neighboring towns that work well. For one, the shellfish department is in continuous collaboration with the shellfish departments of Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. These partnerships have been going on for a long time, I presume, since we share Sengekontacket Pond and Lagoon Pond with the other towns. Issues affecting the ponds, such as excess nitrogen, eelgrass die-offs, and drifting shellfish larvae know no town boundaries. At the same time, successful restoration on one side of the pond has positive impacts on the other. This is just one example of a model situation, where it is almost imperative that we work together. I think that organic collaboration, initiated by the department itself, will produce the best outcomes. The boards of health are another good example. They have productive, all-Island meetings, and their collaboration during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge benefit to the whole Island.

Michelson: Public safety and highway.

What do you see as the biggest challenges facing Oak Bluffs over the next three years? How will you address them?

Balboni: There will always be challenges facing us. COVID has brought many challenges to our town and residents. If elected, I will continue to work with the community to keep businesses running without impacting the residents as much as possible. Trying to continue to provide the services that people expect to have while keeping the taxes down is always a challenge. We look to combine services to reduce costs. Affordable housing is a growing problem that we continue to work on, but with the rising costs of home ownership, it is an uphill battle. I have supported our affordable housing committee in many projects around town. Climate change will affect everyone in some way. I have participated in the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness grant program (MVP). The state awards communities with funding to complete vulnerability assessments and develop action-oriented resiliency plans. These are just a few of the challenges that we face.

Green-Beach: I think that sewage and wastewater management are among our top challenges. Nitrogen inputs to the salt ponds must be reduced and mitigated before our ponds are damaged to the point of no return. The ponds once provided substantial food, jobs, and tourism opportunities, which drove a good deal of our economy. These uses are steadily declining, to the point where commercial scalloping seems to be a thing of the past. It’s not too late, and we can turn things around, but it is going to take funding, dedication, and partnerships with the other towns with whom we share watersheds. Wastewater issues are also an impediment to development and affordable housing — two other things that our community wants and needs. I hope to be part of the solution by seeking out and implementing innovative solutions to this old problem. The Oak Bluffs board of health has been working with the Tisbury board of health to explore the use of innovative alternative septic systems that remove the nitrogen from septic tank effluent. Most people don’t know that Title V septic systems were designed to reduce bacteria from septic effluent, not to take out the nitrogen. It could take years to reverse the damage that has been done by excess nitrogen, so we need to act as soon as possible. I have good working relationships with other town officials, as well as members of the state and federal government who work on nutrient reduction and ecosystem restoration. 

Another major challenge that we must find a resolution to is the burden of non-taxed property on the town of Oak Bluffs. We will need diplomatic, creative representatives to work with members of the other Island towns in order to find solutions that are more equitable and reasonable to everyone than the current situation. 

Michelson: Affordable housing — I think we need to vet every possible revenue stream. I like the idea of the new [housing bank]. I’m hoping this concept, although not completed yet, will be helpful in increasing housing stock. Addiction — we need to continue to support education and treatment options for addicts and their families. Infrastructure — with the current administration in Washington, D.C., there is a big push on redoing our aging and crumbling infrastructure. I think we need to make sure that our state and federal legislators make sure we get our fair share. Education — we need to sit down with educators, select board, and finance committee to discuss a fair and equitable formula to address financial requests. I know that there’s $100-plus billion set aside for schools from the government stimulus package, and I hope some of that and the infrastructure bill will help our schools and town. 

Climate change — I congratulate the town for some of the mitigation projects that it has started. The replenishment at different beaches, at the bulkhead and elsewhere. Maybe infrastructure money from the feds can help us with repairing the bluffs. Also to continue plans to combat climate change. Revenue — I think we should look toward renewable sources to help curb greenhouse gases and make our earth whole again. All ideas for revenue should be looked at. For instance, with all the e-vehicles, maybe some charging stations at our new town parking areas. Just a thought. Also, we should continue to stay vigilant concerning the COVID-19 virus until we get the all-clear from our scientists and medical personnel.