Public Questions Oak Bluffs Candidates for Their Stand on MVC Secession Issue

By CHRIS BURRELL

When it comes to the top elected post in Oak Bluffs, there's no shortage of applicants. In the most hotly contested race on the Island, seven candidates are vying for two seats on the board of selectmen in a town renowned for the drama of its political stage.

Last night at the Oak Bluffs School, the candidates made their best pitch to voters and then fielded questions from an audience seeking to ferret out what issues would help separate the pack.

The candidates range in age from 54 to 67 years old. They are veterans of the Vineyard political circuit, teachers, Island natives and people who settled in Oak Bluffs full-time after retiring from careers on the mainland.

From the beginning of the League of Women Voters forum in Oak Bluffs, it was clear that one issue would stand as a litmus test: Should the town of Oak Bluffs withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission (MVC)?

That question will call voters to the ballot later in May, but the candidates running in the April 10 annual election who support the MVC wasted no time declaring their leanings.

[The commission last week told Oak Bluffs officials it would be unable to review and approve a golf course plan for the southern woodlands in time to avoid a secession vote. Please see story on Page Two.]

Incumbent selectman Roger Wey, seeking a sixth term on the board, had barely uttered two sentences before he came out in favor of his town staying in the commission.

"I'm against Oak Bluffs leaving the commission, and I will vote no on May 13 and call on voters to do the same," said Mr. Wey. "They've done a good job protecting the Island against development. The new executive director has written a report on how to improve the commission, and we should give him a chance."

Two other candidates - David Araujo and Greg Coogan - also backed the MVC in their opening remarks.

Interestingly, it wasn't until Oak Bluffs resident and Martha's Vineyard Land Bank commissioner Priscilla Sylvia stood up and asked the others about their feelings, that two other candidates chose to air their own anti-MVC sentiments. Both Karen Achille and Kenneth DeBettencourt came out against the commission.

Mrs. Sylvia, a former teacher herself, phrased her question in such a way to make it clear she would brook no waffling on the subject. "Should Oak Bluffs withdraw from the Martha's Vineyard Commission?" she asked, then added. "Please include in your answers one of the following words: yes or no."

Mrs. Achille, a retired teacher and the chairman of the Oak Bluffs Library building committee, said she favored the town exiting from the MVC. "I appreciate the sentiment for the southern woodlands," she said, "but there are islands up and down the east coast with golf courses that are not despoiling the environment. And the behavior and conduct of the commissioners has made me no longer respect them as a group."

Mr. DeBettencourt said he would also vote to withdraw from the commission. "The commission must consider the balance between development and conservation … and the town's need for tax revenue," he said.

Still, he pointed out that as a selectman, he would try to determine what the citizens wanted and "follow the wishes of the majority."

The other candidate, Hans von Steiger, a retired engineer and corporate executive, was sharply critical of the MVC, saying that the regional planning and land use agency was operating without any standards. But he stopped short of supporting a move to leave the commission, saying he was eager to see if the new director, Mark London, could reorganize the agency.

Linda Marinelli, the former selectman, said she was against the town leaving the commission. "The Martha's Vineyard Commission has done many things for the town of Oak Bluffs, from working hard to get grants of over $2 million for the harbor to the bike paths," she said.

There was no real sparring among candidates for selectmen and little else in their platforms or answers to questions that set them apart. They all favored reinstituting the practice of inviting nonvoting taxpayers to meet with selectmen in the summer, a practice abandoned last year.

Later, when a teacher named Erin Simmons approached the microphone to share her struggles to buy an affordable house, the candidates sympathized and agreed that housing is one of the biggest problems on the Vineyard. But none offered any solid solutions.

What did come across from the candidates as they faced the crowd was their attitudes and personalities.

After 15 years on the board, Mr. Wey conveyed a confidence and a grasp of the issues. When asked about the forum for seasonal residents, he said, "I spoke up for the seasonal residents to have a voice. They pay a big part of the bill for Oak Bluffs."

And when another resident questioned candidates positions on creating a historic district, Mr. Wey announced that his board had just unanimously voted Tuesday to endorse the Cottage City Historic District proposal.

Mr. Coogan, a math teacher at the Tisbury School who has served on numerous town and regional boards, displayed a similar ease. Dressed in a sweater vest and his sleeves rolled up, he said simply, "Oak Bluffs has a need, and I feel it's right to take part now. I'm a new old fresh face in town government."

Then he added, "The voters in Oak Bluffs feel a little disenfranchised and need someone who will listen."

Both Mr. DeBettencourt and Mr. Araujo played off their sense of humor and their Vineyard roots. When asked about addressing the needs of the town's senior citizens, Mr. DeBettencourt immediately pointed out the need for a new vehicle for the council on aging.

"Right now, they're using the dog officer's old car which smells disgusting," he said.

A former Tisbury selectman, Mr. Araujo said that when he was in Tisbury, he supported meeting with summer residents. "Sometimes I'd come out of those meeting with teeth marks in my backside," he said, "but I learned from it."

Both Mrs. Achille and Mr. von Steiger struck a tone of efficiency in the midst of bureaucracy. "For seven years I was on the library board of trustees and as chairman of the building committee we won the promise of a $1.5 million grant," she said.

Mr. von Steiger poked some fun at himself as the unknown quantity. "You're wondering, ‘Who is this guy?' " he said, and then proceeded to recount a resume that included training in nuclear engineering and a background in recycling hazardous industrial waste.

Finally, Mrs. Marinelli, trying again to regain a seat on the board of selectmen, proved that she's as tenacious and funny as ever. "I'm dedicated to my town, and my record speaks for itself," she said. "And my life, public and private, now and forever, is an open book."