The revelations that there were problems with the applications for community preservation funds in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs and that accompanying documents were altered by Vineyard Trust is deeply concerning.
In Edgartown, the issues with the application for $175,000 in funds for the Old Whaling Church were discovered ahead of town meeting and the request was put on hold by the town. In Oak Bluffs, the issues with the application for $72,300 for the Flying Horses carousel were discovered after a vote at town meeting. Those funds had not yet been dispersed and won’t be, according to select board chair Brian Packish.
The Trust is responsible for the preservation of 20 properties on the Island — the Old Whaling Church and the Flying Horses, among them. They’ve raised millions of dollars for this important stewardship and apply for and use public funds to aid in the preservation. With that comes the responsibility to be accountable to their benefactors and the taxpayers of the Island who provide support through community preservation funds.
When the Edgartown allegations first came to light, the Vineyard Trust board did the right thing and investigated them. Ultimately, CEO and president Funi Burdick resigned from her position with the nonprofit.
Burdick’s letter to Edgartown officials responding to their concerns about the documents provides some insight into why the quotes were altered. She said the work included in the quote did not follow Department of the Interior guidelines for historically registered buildings. “I acknowledge that I should have picked up the phone to clarify directly with [the contractor] whether he was taking into account the full scope of the work at hand and asking him to refine his estimate if necessary. Again, I sincerely apologize for the error,” she wrote. “I do not want my honest mistakes to cloud an otherwise outstanding organization or its leadership. As president, I am taking full responsibility and accountability for these actions and hope you now fully understand that they were made with the trust’s best interest at heart and not out of malice or disregard to the process.”
Patrick Ahearn, chairman of the Vineyard Trust board of directors, made similar comments in his statement announcing Burdick’s resignation.
It will be important now for Vineyard Trust to be completely transparent moving forward. Despite Burdick’s wish that her mistake not cloud the nonprofit, it does.
As one of the members of the Trust board wrote in our comments: “While we were aware grants were being applied for, as volunteer board members we rely on paid staff to accurately complete the grants, which is their expertise … As soon as we learned what happened, we took immediate action (our chairman launched an investigation and brought in former leaders of the organization on that review committee to be certain no stone was left unturned. When the analysis was complete, the chairman accepted the resignation of the president. He also has assigned our governance committee to be sure this never happens again.) This was swift action to correct the mistake. He also has apologized to the community, pledged transparency, and asked for the community’s support because we need it now more than ever.”
Actions will speak louder than words.
This week, both Edgartown and Oak Bluffs police confirmed they are investigating with state police. That should go a long way toward confirming if this was just a mistake, as the board suggests, or if there was something more to it.
There is one more thing worth mentioning about all of this. Each town has a community preservation committee that is responsible for reviewing applications and ultimately making recommendations on how to use these funds.
We hope and trust that what happened in Edgartown and Oak Bluffs is a reminder of just how important those roles are in vetting the use of these funds.