Updated 8:09 pm
The Tisbury select board made it clear on Wednesday it had no appetite to hold a special town election for $26 million in additional funds to pay for the Tisbury School renovation and addition project. Following debate, the board unanimously rescinded the special town election. The select board previously set a special town meeting (Sept. 20) for the sole reason of addressing the $26 million request. This remains in place. The board learned Monday it had been granted a Proposition 2½ waiver from the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR), and therefore it wouldn’t need to hold a special town election on the same funding request. The DOR letter indicated a special town election was no longer required, but noted the town could still hold such an election if it wished to do so.
Select board vice chair Roy Cutrer took particular issue with the notion of two votes on the $26 million request, and evoked the narrow ballot box defeat of a previous school project that sported significant state funding. “I’m going to say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it,” Cutrer said. “And we need to remember the history that created this situation.”
Cutrer described the 2018 project as a “total rebuild of the school,” with millions of Massachusetts School Building Authority dollars in play: “We approved it in town meeting, and because of actions of some people, we went to town vote and … we lost it.”
The loss at the ballot box ruined the state’s support of the project, Cutrer said. The town went back to the drawing board, he said, with the wish of the townspeople to instead do a refurbish and addition project, and the Tisbury School building committee went on to deliver plans for such a project. “Now, delaying this project further,” he said, “can only increase the cost.”
Tisbury voters were originally asked to support $55 million for the school renovation and addition project, which they did both at annual town meeting and the annual town election.
Cutrer said, “We all know that prices go up — except for gas, gas seems to be coming down — prices go up, but they don’t normally come down. So for us to scrap this project, put ourselves right back where we were a couple years ago …”
Cutrer went on to say, “My point is, we gave up millions of dollars, and we’re about to make the same mistake again. We have millions of dollars invested in this project and if we stop what we’re doing, if we stop the momentum that we have to get this project completed, then we are going to lose millions of dollars that we’ve already spent.”
“That’s my opinion also,’ select board chair Larry Gomez said.
“You know, this is not an election of a person,” select board member John Cahill said. “This is a town decision. And I think what a better setting than … a town meeting where we can hopefully discuss it. And yes, there will always be people that are reluctant to speak out. But we need to set an environment where we encourage everyone to participate and have a healthy conversation on the topic, and then come to a conclusion. Because in the end, this really is up to the voters. We’re not denying anyone the ability to vote. They’re going to get that opportunity at that meeting. And I think it’s up to all of us to be able to say, Get out there, go to the meeting — you know, if you can go get your husband to go, get a friend to go — and speak up. And it’s a great setting for this topic.”
Former select board member Melinda Loberg said she was “really in favor of democracy,” and wanted a ballot vote. Loberg said it appeared to her there was a fear afoot that a ballot vote is an opportunity for the voters to reject the project. “And that just really doesn’t look good to me. So I’m in favor of allowing for democracy to take place by a ballot after a town meeting.”
Tisbury resident Tony Peak told the board neighbors often do not want to create friction with other neighbors who may have differing views, and the election format would convey anonymity you don’t get in a town meeting.
“If you are going to not hold a town special election,” Peak said, “I would ask that you commit yourselves now to having an Australian ballot at the special town meeting.”
“The town moderator made it clear to me,” town administrator Jay Grande said, “that town meeting is, and what happens there — it’s the voters’ town meeting. The voters of the town determine how town meeting goes.” Grande said he saw no reason why the select board should intercede in how the voters vote at a town meeting.
Grande said the town has invested $15 million to $17 million in the school project to date. If there’s a “no” vote, the town will have to “pick up the pieces” and look for another option.
“I think the most cost-effective approach is following through on a project we’ve already started,” Grande said. “And it seems ludicrous that we would change course when we’re out of the starting gate.”
He said an “incredible amount of work and time” has gone into procuring bids and putting together documents. Grande said it has been hard to get bidders to commit to an Island job.
“Because you know what, there’s a lot of work off-Island, and they don’t need the hassle of coming over here,” he said. “So that’s plain talk. I think it’s ludicrous to think that you can pick up and go in another direction, delay. It would be foolhardy. That’s my opinion. I know not everyone agrees with me.”
Grande said Tisbury’s “open town meeting” is a form of government that has been employed for over 350 years, “way before Proposition 2½ was even thought about. It’s the most direct and pure form of democracy I believe that exists in the world.”
Grande went on to say the voters have an opportunity to participate in town meeting and address the school funding article. “It shouldn’t require two votes,” he said. “One vote should be sufficient enough to determine this matter.”
School committee chair Amy Houghton previously said plan B, should voters reject the $26 million and effectively scuttle the project, would be longer-term use of temporary classrooms, which cost $85,000 per month. At Wednesday’s meeting, Houghton said folks shouldn’t be swayed by any ideas floating around that the school gym could avoid planned demolition and a rebuild, and instead be restored for less money. Houghton described such ideas as implausible, and essentially pipe dreams, based on how the gym is constructed.
Planning board and Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Ben Robinson said a special town election has already been scheduled, and the “privacy of a ballot box” should be respected. Robinson added, “Often at town meetings we get around 200, maybe 300 people max, and at ballot votes we get over 1,000, so one is much more representative of the voters and the taxpayers of the town than the other.”
The board also unanimously approved a modified warrant article for the special town meeting which slightly reduced the $26 million figure, to $25.6 million, and eliminated a ballot contingency.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated no action had been taken on the special town election.