Three candidates vie for lone seat on Aquinnah selectboard

Candidates respond to town issues.

From left, Adrian Higgins, Nancy Gilson Slate, and Tom Murphy are running for Aquinnah select board.

As longtime selectman Jim Newman departs the board, three candidates with varying backgrounds are vying for his vacant seat. 

Adrian Higgins is a business owner with experience in permitting and engineering. Some of his goals, should he be elected, are making Aquinnah a more affordable place to live, and protecting the year-round residents in town. Nancy Gilson Slate is an artist with a history in science and genetic engineering. If she is elected, Gilson wants to focus on climate impacts such as sea level rise and erosion, and wishes to create more collaboration between towns. Tom Murphy currently serves on three Aquinnah boards and is a licensed attorney operating out of Springfield, Massachusetts. If elected, Murphy would like to work to keep a lean budget, and would use his law experience to address business between the town of Aquinnah and the Wampanoag Tribe. 

The Times asked the three candidates to respond to the same questions. 

How long have you lived in Aquinnah and what do you like about the town?

Higgins: I’ve lived in Aquinnah for four years but I grew up in West Tisbury. I spent a lot of time in Aquinnah as a kid, and I’ve always loved the town. It’s completely unique compared to the other towns, and the people who live here are so kind and most interesting.

Slate: I became a full time resident of Aquinnah in 2019, but my husband and I bought a house in Aquinnah in 2013. Before that I have come to the Island since the 60s and I also honeymooned on Martha’s Vineyard. The Island has a very special feel for me. I am an artist, and Aquinnah is a beautiful place, which is one of the things that drew me here, along with the people who live in town.

Murphy: In 1973 I taught tennis at the Chilmark Community center and fell in love with the Vineyard. My wife and I built a house on the Island in 1987, and I have loved Aquinnah ever since. I am an attorney from Western Massachusetts, and I still still have a law office out in Springfield, so I’ve been going back and forth. Six years ago we moved to Aquinnah permanently.

Why are you running for a seat on the Aquinnah selectboard?

Higgins: I am running because I would like to represent the year-round, working population in town. I think I can understand their predicament, and I’d like to help the average person in Aquinnah by keeping taxes down and trying to make the place a livable place, so it doesn’t just become another extension of the summer resort community. I want to preserve the character of the town, which is really the people. There are so many wonderful, interesting, and skilled people, but they don’t all make the most money. 

Slate: Because I understand the issues, and am passionate about working collaboratively. As a group of towns we need to get together and determine priorities for each town, but really try to see these issues as Island issues. I’m all about advocating for more collaboration between towns. Aquinnah is a very small place, and yet it’s a very complex place because we have two governments — the Wampanoag Tribe and the town of Aquinnah. Anybody who is elected to this office has to be a good listener. You have to be willing to take the time to learn about all the issues. It’s about the person who is going to work for what is best for everyone in the town. It’s important to have a new voice and somebody who really wants people to participate in town issues. 

Murphy: I am trying to wind down my law practice, and as I am winding down, I have a little more bandwidth and a little more time. I love this community, and I pretty much know a lot of what’s under the hood, having dealt with all the financial challenges we have had in this community. 

What are some of your goals, should you be elected?

Higgins: The town right now is in a bit of a transition in terms of infrastructure and things that need to be addressed. It’s a lot of nuts and bolts stuff, but I want to make sure it’s all done in a way that is affordable. A lot of the big projects always seem to run into problems where the money runs out or it costs too much for taxpayers. I like projects, and I like trying to figure out an alternative means to getting something done. Bureaucracy doesn’t always work like that, by definition, but there is a great core group of people in town that understand how things work, and I think bringing people together to tackle these issues would be one of my priorities.

Slate: Well, right now it’s very difficult to afford to live in town for the average homebuyer or renter. Aquinnah is not a large town, so there is a lot of opportunity for cooperation and communication between the town and the people who live here. Making that connection stronger, I think, would be something I would focus on. Also, looking ahead to the future, what will the impacts of climate change be? We need to come together to face these issues. 

Murphy: Aquinnah has the 41st highest taxes in the state, although it’s the 12th lowest tax rate. It’s a balancing act. I know lots of people are concerned about their taxes, including myself. We have a very lean budget for the town, and I am going to try to keep it lean. It’s amazing to me that the city of Jacksonville, Florida is the largest geographic city in the US, but it has one police chief, one fire chief, one mayor. We have six of everything. Some consolidation is one of the ways there could be a cost savings, so I would definitely look to collaborate with other Island towns in that way.

What skills and experience would you bring to the board?

Higgins: I have 20 years of experience running a successful company and trying to manage a successful operation, and I would say running a town is sort of similar in a lot of ways. Having grown up here, and having a large number of shoulders I can tap on and lifelines I can reach out to — those connections are invaluable. I have been doing permitting and engineering with all the towns for a long time, so I have a very good sense of how things ebb and flow at the town bureaucracy level. I’m also willing to work with other towns to be more efficient.

Slate: Being a volunteer in many capacities on the mainland, it’s not about any one person, it’s about working together. I have learned all about that kind of cooperation over the years. I worked on the mainland and for about 30 years I was a commercial potter, although my other interest is genetics. I received my masters in science and genetic counseling, then worked at MassGeneral and did gene sampling and things like that. I was also a teacher when I was a potter, so I know the importance of listening, and I know the importance of patience. Government lately has been about me, me, me, but if you want to succeed, it has to be about us. 

Murphy: I serve on the Aquinnah lighthouse advisory committee, the finance committee, and am currently a planning board member. For the last 18 years I have run the Aquinnah Old South Road Fourth of July parade. I have a great deal of experience in town, and have invested a lot in supporting the town and its people over the years.

What are some of the most pressing issues for Aquinnah?

Higgins: On Lobsterville Road, where I live, we have some serious climate and environmental issues. We have one bridge access, so if that gets taken out that is our only route to the rest of the Island. There are some serious infrastructure issues in town, and I think that going forward, solar and alternative energy development should be a focus. I think we could do more, and we are going to do more on that front. Squibnocket Pond, Menemsha Pond, aquaculture, water health. All the ponds are sort of in a bad way right now. There has been a level of inaction there, and now people are starting to look at these issues more closely. Our ecosystem is pretty delicate here, and we often take it for granted.

Slate: The most critical thing to bring up is affordable housing. I was listening to the M.V. Housing Bank forum, and right now, about a quarter of the year round population in Aquinnah pays half of their year-round income to housing. Not only do we have housing insecurity, we have people that are on the brink of not being able to get enough food. I’m also very concerned with climate change. It’s important to understand that the waters are rising and the cliffs in Aquinnah are eroding. If the water levels go over the bridge, we will literally be our own Island. This town will see the impacts of climate change very early on.

Murphy: One of the major issues facing the town in the near future, I suspect, is dealing with tribal and town relations that have been less than perfect over the years. As an attorney I have been involved in some business with tribes out in the midwest and representing some casino companies, so I have a working knowledge of the issue and the legal ramifications, and I think I can be helpful in that respect.