The Martha’s Vineyard Commission has reluctantly released a seven-page minority report drafted after the commission narrowly approved a sports complex for Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School that includes a controversial synthetic turf field. The draft report concluded that the “project detriments clearly outweigh its benefits.”
The six dissenting commissioners originally said during a public meeting on August 26 that they intended to issue a minority report, a first in the commission’s nearly 50-year history, though it’s allowed under commission bylaws, but had a change of heart a week later. At a Sept. 2 meeting, chair Joan Malkin, one of the dissenters, said the report would not be filed.
Malkin was joined by commissioners Jeff Agnoli, Jay Grossman, Kathy Newman, Ben Robinson, and Christine Todd in opposing the project — specifically the synthetic turf field.
Because the draft report was discussed during public meetings, The Times requested a copy. When it wasn’t released, The Times requested it under the state’s public records law. In releasing the report, Malkin wrote that she believes the commission would be justified in withholding the document because it was not considered during the deliberative process or incorporated into the public record.
“It was generated after the final decision of the commission, and reflects only draft discussion points of the minority of commissioners who voted to deny the project. We note that the dissenting commissioners unanimously determined to NOT file the requested document with the commission,” she wrote. “However, the commission believes that producing the document now would further transparency and trust in the MVC, and would enable the commission to concentrate its efforts on other pressing matters before it.”
Massachusetts public records law is clear that all documents generated by a governmental body are presumed public, and outlines certain exemptions for withholding records, to protect personnel records and investigations, for example.
When the decision was made not to file the minority report, Malkin said, it was an effort to keep the issue from becoming “divisive and polarizing, rather than inclusive.”
In a conversation with The Times, Malkin said the draft report won’t be posted on the commission’s website, as it’s not an official document: “We had reason to believe it did not need to be produced, but instead of fighting over it, we felt there was no harm in producing it.”
Asked if there was any pressure on the dissenters not to file the report, Malkin responded, “Absolutely not.” Later, she added, “There was no suggestion or inference that they were acting under behest or pressure from anyone.”
The dissenting members met during an unposted Zoom session between the August 26 and Sept. 2 commission meetings. Malkin said there was no violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law because the six commissioners do not constitute a quorum. She said the decision was the result of “amicable, open, and cooperative decision-making” by the members.
Ultimately, the decision came down to a show of respect for the majority on the commission. “We made a tremendous effort to say to our colleagues, We stand with you to work with you to do what’s right for this Island,” Malkin said.
But the draft dissenting opinion notes the seriousness of the issue, and the impact it could have on future decisions made by the commission on developments of regional impact (DRI). “In addition, this minority report is our effort to offer both an alternative analysis of the public hearing testimony, and our respect for and acknowledgment of the considerable number of public participants who voiced the very same concerns with the project that we have highlighted in this report,” the report states.
The report outlines six key areas that were on the minds of those who dissented, in the following bullet points:
- “Does not adequately factor into its review and decision the imperative to reduce the detrimental impacts of the climate crisis, as required by its own climate emergency resolution, passed overwhelmingly by the MVC in 2019;
- “Does not adequately consider the relevance and significance of contemporaneous community initiatives and town meeting votes which represent, in some cases unanimously, the community’s expression of its desire to reduce the proliferation of plastics where alternatives are available;
- “Does not adequately weigh the potential detriment of plastic and other pollutants and the environmental risks generally;
- “Does not give sufficient weight to the option of constructing and maintaining an all-grass field that would meet community needs;
- “Narrowly correlates athletic success and our youth’s sense of self-esteem and community pride with the alleged benefits of a synthetic playing field, while not acknowledging that young Island athletes have experienced success in their chosen sport without a synthetic field. Perhaps more significant, the decision does not acknowledge that protecting the environment, heeding concerns about the need to reduce our consumption practices of fossil-fuel derived products (and in general), and learning to be more sufficient in regard to the needs of the community within the context of material and energy consumption are at least as valuable for the development of community-minded individuals with pride in self and community; and
- “Finds, on balance, that the project’s limited benefits outweigh its detriments despite the substantial evidence of very compelling detriments.
The minority report then goes on to provide specific examples, pointing out the commission’s own resolution on the climate crisis. “In reviewing this controversial proposal, we believe that the MVC did not sufficiently account for the environmental effects of climate change or seek to reduce those impacts that result from the use of a synthetic field,” the draft report states. “This is so despite the fact that the evidence regarding the turf’s carbon emissions — from cradle to grave — was unchallenged.”
It also points out that Island communities have continuously sought to reduce plastic consumption — banning plastic bags and single-use plastic bottles, for example. “These local initiatives and submissions demonstrate well-canvassed and broad-based support for the reduction of plastics and the protection of our environment generally, premised on evidence of the dangers to human health and to the Island environment more generally — both on land and in our waters,” the draft report states. “And yet, the decision pays scant attention to these concerns and the community’s consensus on these issues.”
The draft report points out that requiring all grass fields failed on a tied vote, 8-8. It provides a long list of what it sees as the benefits of a grass field over synthetic turf. “At a bare minimum, there should be a presumption in favor of grass,” the draft report states. “The majority decision fails to acknowledge such a presumption, and, in any event, provides few arguments to rebut it.”
While acknowledging some of the benefits of the synthetic turf field, including that it would allow for more hours of use, no fertilizer, and reduce water consumption, the report concludes that those benefits don’t outweigh the detriments. “It makes little sense to focus on project benefits derived from any aspect of the project other than the field, as every one of those benefits could as easily be made available with an all-grass option, with adequate funding,” the draft report states. “As there was testimony that there were ‘no donors and no donor list,’ we find it incredible that similar funding would not be available for a durable, reliable, and professionally maintained grass field.”
In the conclusion, the minority report questions what motivated two commissioners to change their votes for all-grass to support the synthetic turf. “They did not apparently change their view on the appropriateness of an all-grass high school,” the draft report states. “We are concerned that a sense of expediency may have overwhelmed the larger and more consequential issues and concerns — both long- and short-term — facing the Island.”
The minority report also expresses concern about potential precedent. “The MVC is the sole Island institution charged with the preservation of the Island’s unique values. It is a decision-making and policy-making board. As a commission, we tend to consider these two roles as separate and distinct, but they are necessarily entwined,” the report states. “We are concerned that the majority decision is not merely a ‘decision,’ but an expression of ‘policy’ as well. We urge the MVC to heed its own policy pronouncements (in this case, the Climate Crisis Resolution), and conscientiously weigh the longer-term policy implications of its decisions as matters arise in the future. We firmly believe that MVC decisions should accord far more weight to environmental concerns in light of the seriousness of the climate crisis facing the Island and the globe.”
The dissenting commissioners conclude by saying while they disagree with the majority, “we respect their views and we remain firmly committed to supporting every effort to ensure compliance with the commission’s decision.”