Private money has no place in public, governmental affairs. It’s undemocratic, unethical, and sets a dangerous precedent.
But that’s exactly what the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee is using to fund a legal battle against the Oak Bluffs planning board in order to get their way on an artificial turf field; a board that, right or wrong, is trying to protect the town’s drinking water.
Backed into a corner after a tumultuous town meeting season, the committee voted to use private donations, from mostly anonymous donors, to pay for its lawsuit. The committee is appealing a decision by the planning board that rejected the field over concerns that emerging contaminants called PFAS might get into the groundwater.
“We should accept the $5,000 with gratitude,” committee member Kris O’Brien is quoted as saying during last week’s meeting, when the private donations were accepted.
The rationale of the school committee is easy to understand. In the spring, the committee voted against setting a limit on the budgeted legal funds. Voters at four of six Island town meetings caused an uproar. Rightfully so. Not setting a limit for the use of taxpayer money to override another elected board through the courts is problematic, and West Tisbury, Aquinnah, Chilmark, and Tisbury residents all voted — mostly overwhelmingly — to hold the committee accountable.
And the school committee listened. They pledged not to use money from the fiscal year budget beginning in July for the lawsuit.
But their lawsuit against the Oak Bluffs planning board wasn’t over. Earlier this month, representatives of the school committee, with their attorney present, met with representatives of Oak Bluffs in what were said to be the early stages of settlement talks. Next, the appeal had a hearing before a judge earlier this month in Massachusetts Land Court. Both took place during the current fiscal year, with attorney fees racking up. The school committee has to pay its attorney somehow.
Enter two payments from private individuals. One was an anonymous donation of $2,000, and the other was $3,000 from Islander Regis Nepomuceno and unnamed friends. Who are behind these donations, and what their motivations are, aren’t exactly clear at this time.
In fairness to some school committee members, if they chose not to accept the funding, they might get sued by their attorney for not paying him; it’s unclear where they would get the funding. Which makes us wonder why this wasn’t discussed earlier. Better to know where your money is coming from before you spend it.
Regardless, using private funding is a new low. The committee represents a public school that is accountable to the whole Island community, and private money can’t be allowed to tip the scales for any project. Is there a quid pro quo with the funding?
It also raises the question of who is behind these payments. Are they parents concerned about their kid’s athletic experience, or are they sympathetic to the synthetic turf industry? Will the private donors pay the millions of dollars in remediation it will take if the town’s drinking water tests for PFAS above a federal standard? For some perspective, what if the Oak Bluffs planning board started accepting private, anonymous donations? That would severely impact their ability to fairly judge a project under their review.
School committee members are elected to decide what projects to undertake, and secure funding that the entire community will agree to, without a back door for select projects. That is why we have taxes, so that elected officials make decisions that benefit the community and not the individuals or businesses with enough money to make donations.
Right or wrong, there is concern among residents of Oak Bluffs and across the Island that the turf field could impact the quality of groundwater, and eventually drinking water. The school committee needs to come to grips with that public perception, and work with it. Right now, they are trying to ram the field through, ethics be damned.