A virtual Oak Bluffs planning board special permit hearing on the high school athletic field project concluded with a virulent outburst by supporter Terry Donahue Thursday, using vulgar slang for a woman’s genitals to interrupt a woman speaker.
Thursday’s meeting dealt largely with public comment in support of the first phase of the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School athletic field project, with the only element of significant contention being the synthetic turf game field included in the proposal. Following an hour and a half of public comment in support of the field project from coaches, student athletes, parents, and members of the public, board chair Ewell Hopkins opened public comment in opposition to the project.
Susan Desmarais was the first and only opponent to the project to have her comments heard before the meeting was continued. More public comment in opposition will be heard at the next board meeting on April 21, at 5 pm.
“In a letter from Michael Silvia, the superintendent of the O.B. water district, he suggests that PFAS contamination is a possibility,” Desmarais said. “Wells will be monitored, and three of our wells are just one law mile from the location of the proposed field. It’s also clear in correspondence that should contamination occur, Oak Bluffs is responsible financially for the mitigation.”
Desmarais continued to say that she has been battling cancer ever since being exposed to a long-chain bioaccumulative chemical (PFAS is bioaccumulative) called diethylstilbestrol.
The chemical was prescribed to pregnant women from 1949 until 1971, but Desmarais said the pharmaceutical industry knew it caused reproductive abnormalities and cancer, and kept that information hidden.
She related this to the emerging science of PFAS, and said it wasn’t until rare forms of cancers were linked to DES by a whistleblower that the Food and Drug Administration urged doctors to stop prescribing it to their pregnant patients.
Toward the end of Desmarais’ testimony, Donahue came over the Zoom meeting and could be heard exclaiming “you f______ c___.” A recording of the Zoom clearly shows it was Donahue speaking.
Now, Desmarais is demanding a public apology from Donahue. She told The Times the outburst at the meeting illustrates the vitriolic nature of the discourse that has taken place for years. “Quite frankly, I don’t know what has happened to our community. It felt like verbal violence. That’s what it was,” she said. “If anyone thinks I’m going to be bullied, they are woefully wrong. I’m not going to back down.”
Donahue did not immediately return calls or text messages which question his use of that phrase.
Superintendent Matt D’Andrea told The Times he had to jump off the meeting early to attend to another matter, so he did not hear the outburst when it happened. But, after receiving a complaint in his email, he was able to view a video recording of the meeting and witness the outburst. “I was able to watch toward the end of the meeting, and I was horrified. It was absolutely awful and unacceptable what happened,” D’Andrea said. He stressed that this process is an opportunity for folks to speak their mind about the project, and he has tried to advocate for members of the public and their freedom to express themselves.
“That type of outburst is in no way shape or form ever acceptable. I have spoken with Susan. I told her what happened was wrong and horrifying. I apologized to her,” D’Andrea said. He added that he has not yet spoken with Donahue, although he said he would soon.
“Terry has been a strong supporter of this project. He has been very outspoken in support, and that is really the extent of his relationship with the school,” D’Andrea said.
School committee chair Amy Houghton told The Times Donahue has no official role with the school, and has not been asked to provide comments on behalf of the school. “Public meetings are not a place to blast officials, they are not a place to blast people who want to speak. I think people should be working with each other to move toward something that is for the good of students, and this project has really brought out the worst in some people,” Houghton said.
Public records show Donahue looped into email chains about the project with school officials by Laura Green, a consultant who has downplayed PFAS as it relates to synthetic turf. In December, when Green was under fire for her comments disavowed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Donahue confirmed he and other supporters of the project paid Green’s consulting fee.
Hopkins told The Times he came out of Thursday’s meeting with the understanding that he and the rest of the board will have to figure out a way to better illustrate the process of a special permit review, and the criteria with which a project is reviewed under section 8.2 of the Oak Bluffs zoning bylaws (a water resource protection overlay district).
“This discussion was supposed to be guided by the criteria in a predetermined sensitive area. We are not soliciting public testimony on whether you want a plastic field or don’t want a plastic field, or whether or not it’s going to benefit traditionally disenfranchised individuals or reduce concussion rates,” Hopkins said. “We have gone through all that in the site plan review, and the commission has done a review.”
Although he will continue to permit public testimony that sways from the stringent criteria of the WRPOD special permit review process, Hopkins asked members of the public to consider how extraneous testimony will prolong the board’s review period. “On the one hand we are getting a lot of criticism for taking a long time, but then we sat through a meeting last night where there was little if any public testimony that spoke to the issue of introducing materials that have known PFAS on top of that fragile water source system,” Hopkins said.
As for the adversarial nature of the conversation, Hopkins called it “disturbing,” and said the elected officials of the planning board are attempting a highly technical review which is being derailed by vitriol.
“We are getting into this toxic, visceral argument and vilifying one another — we all lose. We are trying to hear from the public, and my biggest fear is that people will be reluctant and intimidated to articulate their feelings, because who wants to expose themselves to that kind of attack? It’s much bigger than this derogatory outburst, it’s undermining our process of civil discourse — it’s really that significant,” Hopkins said.