The West Tisbury select board held a joint meeting with the town’s affordable housing committee to discuss “process issues, roles, and responsibilities” during a Monday evening meeting.
Board chair Cynthia Mitchell started by saying the committee has done a “fantastic job” in “bringing meaningful results.”
“That said, we’ve got some issues,” Mitchell said, adding that “mutually agreed-upon steps” will need to be taken to improve. The affordable housing properties involved in the issues to be discussed were 401 State Road and 15 Rock Pond Road.
For 401 State Road, the issue to be discussed was the committee’s conduct. South Mountain Co., the architectural firm that was working with Island Housing Trust (IHT), pulled out of the affordable housing project because of the committee members’ “rudeness,” which was revealed in letters from the two organizations. This issue was also discussed during a Sept. 28 board meeting.
Mitchell said additional correspondence was sent by IHT CEO Philippe Jordi after the meeting, suggesting the formation of a working group to “talk about some of the issues involved in the design of the project.” Mitchell clarified that this idea was not brought up during the previous meeting, and that a design should be worked on, although not with a separate group, in hopes to “salvage the contract with South Mountain.” During the previous meeting, South Mountain Co. CEO John Abrams floated the possibility for them to return, but it is uncertain at this time, and the decision is not his alone to make.
Committee member Ted Jochsberger said a decision to make a subcommittee was reached at one point, but committee chair Michael Colaneri, who has been absent from the past few meetings involving the committee, did not follow through with the idea, “for some reason.”
“I think it’s not a bad idea,” Jochsberger said. He continued by saying that the plans submitted “in no way reflected what we asked for,” and he “found it sort of insulting.”
The fact South Mountain Co. and the committee may have not wanted the same thing for the project was acknowledged by Jochsberger.
“But it is the town’s project, not South Mountain’s project, and we felt our views should be given more consideration,” Jochsberger said. “I would also add that the committee acts as one, and the fact that it was suggested that there were some people who did not want this project to go and some people who did on the committee is really, absolutely wrong. I mean, we worked for three years, and every member of the committee who was there put in the three years.”
Jochsberger thought this comment might have been “an attempt to sow discord.” He finished his thoughts by saying a subcommittee consisting of people from the committee, IHT, and possibly from South Mountain Co. alongside an abutter to 401 State Road should be formed.
West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand said that Jochsberger’s statement is “sort of indicative of, perhaps, the concerns about how this has unfolded so far.” Rand said she has read letters from committee members stating “the committee wasn’t rude,” but she felt differently from attending the meetings.
“I’ll say I was stunningly uncomfortable at the meetings I was at. I thought that the meetings were chaotic, at best, and aggressively rude, for a lack of a better way to put it,” Rand said. “There’s a lack of productivity moving forward when a committee member — and I’m picking on you just for a second, Ted, because you’re the one who just spoke — committee member says the plans that were submitted were ‘insulting’ and the statements made were an attempt to ‘sow discord,’ this is precisely the thing that will not allow this project to move forward.”
The “thought process that there is some intent here to be insulting … to sow discord” is “no way to move forward,” Rand said. She suggested, based on a comment committee member Lawrence Schubert made, the committee physically sit down in a room to outline what they like and dislike about the plans presented, and to “take away the assignment of motive.”
Regarding a possible subcommittee, Rand heard that Colaneri claimed she said it couldn’t happen despite him never bringing it up to her. However, she was asked whether a small group could meet about this issue without having to post meeting times or minutes.
“That’s what was asked: If we have less than a quorum, would that mean we could just sit and meet? And my answer was no. This should never happen this way because this is a town project that the voters have paid for,” Rand said. “This meeting, whether it is with a subcommittee of the affordable housing committee or the full affordable housing committee, needs to be a posted meeting that has minutes, that is a very open process.”
Anything other than the open process would be a “disservice to the voters who are paying for this project,” according to Rand. She acknowledged that this can “slow down the process” sometimes, but that needs to be led by “good leadership within a meeting” while providing a space for people to speak without being spoken over.
“I know that there was, in this proposed subcommittee, an affordable housing committee member who asked to be involved and was told they could not be involved because they weren’t ‘chosen.’ That’s not how this committee should be working. It should be an open process to develop what could be yet another beautiful project like you have produced in the past,” Rand said.
Schubert later said each committee member has a “different philosophy” about what makes a good project benefiting the community, and “as of late” felt the committee has “a few different camps,” with some believing the committee should focus on the “big picture” while others want to look at the details. He belongs to the former, but thinks meeting in person can help to move the process forward. Committee member Jefrey DuBard, who is also an IHT board member, and James Klingensmith both also said a more cooperative nature is needed, which will be supported through in-person meetings without some of the difficulties that come with Zoom. Howes House building committee member Bernadette Lyons suggested having a mediator on hand.
During the public comment period, Abrams clarified that “there was no design,” and what was submitted was a “conceptual design.”
“Everybody’s saying the same thing: Get that process started. It’s now been six months since that response, and we have not been able to get that process started. It’s going to take a long time for everybody to come together with a good design solution,” he said.
West Tisbury zoning board of appeals vice chair Julius Lowe said the issues surrounding the committee have been conducted “without naming names, which I respect,” but brought up how Colaneri is absent. Lowe pointed to Colaneri as a part of the problem from his “experience with this committee,” and wondered if the chair would be able to properly internalize the discussion without being present.
“Michael Colaneri has been a bully, he has not professionally run meetings in the past, he has not allowed people to speak, he has talked over people, and he has gone out on a limb on multiple occasions I have noted, to proceed in such a way that the committee has not voted on or decided on,” Lowe said as someone from “the outside looking in,” who acknowledged his comments may be strident, but felt it would be “remiss not to point this out.”
Jochsberger said Lowe’s comment was strident and “totally inappropriate.”
Colaneri was not immediately available for comment.
Letter raises issues about 15 Rock Pond Road
The two boards also discussed 15 Rock Pond Road and “process issues” that arose when a letter was sent to Christy Phillipps, who owns the property, about enforcing a “violation of the covenant [the deed rider, which outlines the restrictions on a deed],” according to Mitchell. The letter stated that Phillipps was renting out the property “without prior written consent of the monitoring agent [Dukes County Regional Housing Authority].”
Rand said the letter that was sent, which was seen by town counsel and authorized by Colaneri, was a problem because the committee did not vote on it before it was sent out. After a conversation the committee had with Christy during the Sept. 28 meeting regarding the letter, the members considered whether it would be appropriate to send an apology letter to her for how it was sent out.
“I strongly disagree with that, because the only reason the letter wasn’t further voted and discussed and, to my instinct, voted to be sent was because she has taken steps to do what she is supposed to be doing,” Rand said. “But the letter was strictly an outlining of the enforcement that the covenant allows for. It was clear enforcement of a covenant that she owned. It wouldn’t really be appropriate to send an apology.”
Additionally, Rand pointed out that the committee was working “step by step” for enforcement. While the house is now empty, the enforcement letter should also be kept “in case something stalls out,” according to Rand.
Jochsberger said the committee had taken a vote to table the issue during the Sept. 28 meeting, but he agreed with Rand. DuBard, who had initially felt an apology would be appropriate, changed his mind after reflecting on a conversation he had with Rand.
Schubert provided more information about the documents sent to Phillipps later in the meeting. The letter was trying to enforce “payment of the rent Ms. Phillipps collected for the last couple of years from the tenant who was living there.” The other document, the purchase and sale agreement, would be used “if we were going to initiate that covenant where we would buy it.”
Mitchell clarified that what was being discussed was the way the letter was sent, and the board was not challenging the committee’s right to send a letter.
“There was some talk, you know, since counsel had helped to prepare the letters, why were we questioning it? And that’s not what was being questioned, it was the actual committee process by which to get it out the door,” Mitchell said.
West Tisbury affordable housing committee administrative assistant Rhonda Conley said she received word from Phillipps that she is moving forward with the process, and is waiting to see who the new monitoring agent will be for the sale of the house to a qualified person, a role the Dukes County Regional Housing Authority will take for now. Conley said the state Department of Housing and Community Development is helping to find a new monitoring agent.