Oak Bluffs will vote to elect its new select board member on Thursday, April 14. Polls will be open from 10 am to 7 pm in the library’s lower meeting room. Incumbent Gail Barmakian is seeking re-election to her fifth term, and faces challenges from Dion Alley and Jim Bishop.
Barmakian grew up spending her summers in Oak Bluffs, and moved to the town permanently in 1997. Her family has been part of the Oak Bluffs community for three generations. Barmakian is a practicing attorney, and in addition to serving on the town’s select board, represented the board on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission from 2016 to 2021.
Alley also has numerous family ties to the Island, having grown up in Oak Bluffs. After graduating from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 1976, he served as a submariner in the U.S. Navy. Alley and his family moved back to the Island during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, after working in the energy and global infrastructure industries. Having lived and traveled abroad for much of his life, Alley returned to the Vineyard and has been part of the Oak Bluffs finance committee, energy committee, and currently serves as the Cape Light Compact representative for Oak Bluffs.
Bishop, who is a member of the town’s affordable housing committee, did not respond to repeated emails, after initially confirming his email address.
What are the reasons you have decided to run for a position on the Oak Bluffs select board?
Barmakian: The reason I am running has not changed since the first time I ran. It is because I love this community and this town. It’s important to bring institutional knowledge and experience to the table. Ours is a relatively young board, and [Oak Bluffs] has experienced a lot of turnover. I am already familiar with questions of municipal finance and law, have historical knowledge, and know how to navigate the system, so there is no learning curve. With my professional background and experience, I hope to bring a certain historic continuity, and continue to contribute.
Alley: As I started to learn more about how the town of Oak Bluffs works — a lot of the committees, finance, energy — we’re all advisory committees; but all the big, important decisions are being made by the select board. I felt that by the time we were advising, a lot of those decisions were well down their path, and sort of [already] made. I thought the best way I could contribute and use some of my experiences was to be involved in helping formulate whatever the strategies and the answers are to all the questions we have.
What are the biggest issues Oak Bluffs is facing right now?
Barmakian: Certainly, the changes on Circuit Avenue and the Streetscape Plan have been on the forefront of conversation, and how it will affect traffic and year-round and seasonal business, or, in other words, how will it work? Celebrating and preserving our diverse population and addressing the lack of attainable housing and the costs of keeping a home in town, especially for those on fixed incomes, are priorities. [Additionally,] we need to provide sufficient and affordable services for our senior population. As we get back to normal from COVID, being in touch with and responsive to the whole community is vital. We need to consider how we will absorb major, looming, and necessary capital expenditures like the regional high school and the construction of a new wastewater plant. As an oceanfront community, we face environmental challenges of water quality, climate change, sea level rise. We need to be vigilant in fostering relationships at the state and federal level, and aggressively seek the funding for these projects. We need to continue to continue to address the health of our oceans, lagoons, and ponds, and coordinate with the appropriate departments at the state and local level, including the conservation commission, park department, and shellfish department. It is a long road with many components, and we’ve made good headway so far.
Alley: The infrastructure issues must be addressed. We need to be looking at these things as ongoing investments, whether it’s water, wastewater, energy. When we put in a large asset like wastewater treatment plants, we know that when we refurbish them, we have maybe another 15 to 20 years, and so day one of that next 20 years, we need to start planning for what will happen at that 20-year mark when it approaches. I think the town administrator is doing a great job as far as getting a good understanding of the finances, but the focus now needs to be toward the actual operation and running of the town. The board needs to focus on the big-ticket items, the longer term, and that we need to bring the town into a more formalized operation. What I mean by that is a good, updated set of bylaws. If I’ve got a function, or want to do a road race, I want to have something in the park, whatever it may be, the bylaws should state whether you should have that function. It shouldn’t be left to five people deciding whether or not it’s OK to have your event. I don’t see enough cooperation between the towns. I don’t think we should be leaving it to the Commission or someone else to try to corral everybody around certain issues. I appreciate what they do, but they’re in an untenable situation too, because they need all the fundings from the town. There has to be a much stronger relationship between the towns. While we are an Island, we’re an island with two populations. We’re an island with a year-round population, and a seasonal population. Now, with the growing population, we really haven’t changed the size of town government that much, and that’s town services as well; they don’t have the time to catch up, and are constantly falling behind. We need to find better ways of addressing that. Almost every question is an Island question. It’s not [just] an Oak Bluffs question.
An Edgartown woman had her license to carry firearms suspended for failing to report a missing gun in a timely manner. She is now facing charges, in part due to her failure to report the missing gun. The Oak Bluffs Police Department lost and rediscovered an assault rifle, and directed blame at a sergeant, even though an independent investigation showed one or more other people were potentially culpable in this mystery disappearance. Do you think police officers should be held to a similar, if not higher, standard than that of the public?
Barmakian: In some instances, police officers are appropriately held to a higher standard than [civilians]. It is also important to be mindful that police officers are friends, neighbors, and a part of our community.
Alley: We should all be held to the same standards. It would depend on what the statute[s] say.
In light of recent major infrastructure legislation that passed Congress and was signed by the president, would you support the building of a breakwater or barrier to help protect the terminal and its boats? What could be something that may remedy the current breakdown issues and inconsistencies regarding the Steamship Authority’s ferry boats?
Barmakian: A study was done years ago exploring this issue, and work was done when they replaced the wharf to make it more secure and enlarge the office, but it stopped there. Maintenance has not been sufficient, and the attention given to the Oak Bluffs pier by the authority has been sporadic. A further study needs to be done by the authority to investigate what improvements could be made to elongate the season into the late fall/early winter, or even make it a year-round port, if that is what the community would like to see. I think it would be a great thing for the town.
Alley: A breakwater would not work. You are not going to protect yourself from Mother Nature. [We need to] find a design that works, and utilize those designs in a [cost-effective way].
Oak Bluffs has repeatedly faulted the present funding formula for both high school operations and for financing a new or rebuilt high school. The Vineyard towns have not been able to satisfy Oak Bluffs’ desires for a more equitable funding formula. What would you do differently to break the stalemate on the subject and get high school funding moving forward?
Barmakian: The funding formula for the regional high school is inequitable, and has been since the high school was built. It is long past time to deal with it. I would doggedly continue the conversations with the other towns around that fact that we already know how to do this — follow the funding formula of the Dukes County Commission and the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, based on valuation. It makes no sense to follow a different formula for the regional high school.
Alley: I have no problem going by pupil population as a year-over-year running of the school. But when it comes to building a fixed asset, we should all be contributing equally to that asset. I would look at bringing in a third party, [perhaps] someone who has done this before, and has done this for all the regional school districts in the state, and have them do an arbitration and get the towns and the select boards to agree to a binding arbitration.
What are your thoughts on the proposed housing bank?
Barmakian: I strongly believe that the question should go to the people at town meeting and on the ballot. As your paper wrote, Oak Bluffs has the purest form of government, which is town meeting. It is the people’s decision, and the select board members take a second seat. As an individual, I believe something has to be done about the high cost of housing, as well as the lack of available year-round housing. The housing coalition has done a stellar job in coming up with a proposal after many months of hard work and outreach, through a responsible and responsive process. They were willing to make modifications numerous times to make it a better document. It is a complicated matter. While I am uncertain about some provisions, I say why throw the baby out with the bath water, because something has to be done, and the proposal has some built-in flexibility to work. If we don’t do anything, we will lose the diversity of our towns. This is a good start.
Alley: The problem is not “we need affordable housing.” That is the symptom. Affordable housing is the solution for something. What is the problem we’re trying to solve? I think the housing bank proposal is something that is needed, but we can’t keep building housing when we have no infrastructure to support it. We can’t keep adding to the nitrogen issue or the energy issue. We need to have ecological balance. And right now, what the Island is telling us, not the people, but what Mother Nature is telling us, is that we have too much of everything. Because if we lose our ponds, our waterways, why would anyone come here? Mother Nature can’t clean [the Island] by herself. We need to be better stewards, and that doesn’t mean “let’s build another house.”