Tisbury's ‘Climate Has Been Tainted'

So Saying, Selectman LaPorte Decides it's Time for Town Administrator to Take Work Elsewhere

By JONATHAN BURKE

Selectman Ray LaPorte broke a stalemate on the Tisbury town board this week by withdrawing his support for the reappointment of town administrator Dennis Luttrell.

"I think it would likely be in Dennis's professional best interests to seek opportunities beyond our shores, because the climate has been tainted and now any negotiations of re-upping our contract won't likely bear fruit for him," Mr. LaPorte told the Gazette in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

When Mr. Luttrell first requested a renewal of his contract at a May 6 selectmen's meeting, the result was a deadlock, with selectman Tristan Israel opposing a renewal, Mr. LaPorte supporting the administrator and selectman Tom Pachico abstaining on grounds that because he is also the town health agent, he had a possible conflict of interest in the matter.

Mr. LaPorte's change of heart follows an opinion by town counsel and three weeks of escalating friction between Mr. Israel and Mr. Luttrell that culminated in an argumentative meeting of the selectmen on Tuesday.

In his letter dated May 29, town counsel Leonard Kopelman wrote: "In my opinion, the board of selectmen is free to renew the agreement, or not renew it, regardless of whether a review board is established or whether such a review board makes a recommendation."

Mr. Luttrell's position was that under terms of his contract, the board of selectmen was required to appoint a representative to a review committee.

"Your refusal to appoint a member of the board of selectmen to the contract required review board does not honor our contract," Mr. Luttrell wrote in a May 13 memorandum to Mr. Israel.

But the town counsel, in his letter, said Mr. Luttrell had missed a deadline in asking the selectmen to set up the review board.

Town counsel's letter did not address Mr. Luttrell's employment status should the board take no action on his contract - another source of disagreement between Mr. LaPorte and Mr. Israel. Mr. LaPorte maintained that Mr. Luttrell would remain as an employee without a contract should the board take no action; Mr. Israel said that a failure to renew the contract would amount to a termination of employment.

Nor did the opinion letter address Mr. Luttrell's allegation that Mr. Israel had defamed him by unlawfully speaking to Mr. Luttrell's reputation during a public meeting.

Those questions aside, Mr. LaPorte said this week that the determining factor for him was the need for a working government in Tisbury.

"It's whether or not Dennis can do a job in a climate that's obstructionist," he said.

"I'm not interested in trying to make it worse. I'm trying to make it work. Trying to keep a business like approach is important to me more than anything."

On Tuesday evening, it was clear that the gulf between the board chairman and the town administrator had widened.

Mr. Israel expressed irritation when Mr. Luttrell requested a clarification of provisions in his job description that pertained to the extent of the town administrator's authority.

"It's been two and a half years," said Mr. Israel, frustrated that Mr. Luttrell did not understand when he could act independently of the board of selectmen. Policy decisions, said the chairman, are only to be taken with the support of the board of selectmen.

Mr. Pachico said, "Do you have anything specific in mind? I don't know what the point is, Dennis."

On Mr. Luttrell's request for clarification of his supervisory position over town employees, Mr. Israel said again that his job was to execute the policy of the board of selectmen.

"What's the deal, you don't like that?" asked Mr. Israel.

"It's difficult; a lot of the time the board doesn't have a lot of policy," said Mr. Luttrell.

Tensions at the meeting were also evident when Mr. Israel asked the board to consider a merit pay increase for Jay Wilbur, harbor master. Mr. Wilbur and Mr. Luttrell have butted heads a number of times over the past year.

Mr. Israel said he disagreed with last year's evaluation of Mr. Wilbur, which resulted in no pay increase, and said that the evaluation intentionally was kept quiet.

According to Mr. Israel, Mr. Wilbur was not recommended for a pay increase under questionable circumstances.

"This [evaluation] never got to me because it was put in a drawer - I think deliberately," said Mr. Israel. "There were a lot of deliberate games played with this this year, and I'm unhappy."

But Mr. Israel's fellow selectmen said it was not appropriate for them to be voting on a pay increase at this time. Mr. Pachico and Mr. LaPorte said proper procedure was for Mr. Wilbur to seek an appeal with the personnel board.

Mr. Pachico added that in his opinion, Mr. Wilbur should have raised any concerns over his evaluations eight months ago. Following the meeting, Mr. LaPorte said there was no undue secrecy around Mr. Wilbur's evaluation. All evaluations, he said, are available for the selectmen to review at any time in town hall.