Commission Invites Public Comment on Its Plan for Blind Charitable Trust

By MANDY LOCKE

Responding to criticism that their public agency should not mask the identity of private donors, the Martha's Vineyard Commission last night agreed to host a public forum for Islanders to air concerns about the agency's recently established charitable trust.

"The way I understand it, it's about accountability. They want us accountable to them, and they feel like they're losing control of the commission. But where their control over us comes is at the ballot box," said commissioner Richard Toole, trying to explain why the charitable trust has drawn a negative response from some Island officials.

Edgartown selectmen took aim at the commission's charitable trust last month, shortly after three former members of the land use planning agency publicly unveiled the concept. Edgartown's leaders questioned the wisdom of denying information on a public institution's finances to citizens. They voiced that opinion again yesterday, stating in a letter to the commission: "We wish to emphasize that if the commission is going to accept gifts, then it should be done above board, not secret, and not blind. The process and information should be completely public."

The decision to call a public meeting came after more than an hour of discussion - cut short because some members insisted on hearing directly from critics.

"The select elected officials [that have criticized the trust] should be invited to attend. They should be here tonight. They're kind of shooting from afar," said commissioner Roger Wey.

None of the Edgartown selectmen attended last night's meeting, but they had spelled out their concerns to Linda DeWitt, their appointee to the MVC.

The complaints forced commissioners last night to take a step back and ask whether accepting donations is appropriate and, if so, should the public know who's writing those checks?

The commission's enabling legislation, crafted by the Massachusetts state legislature more than 25 years ago, specifically gives the MVC authority to accept "gifts of land, buildings, interests in land, or any funds or monies from any source including grants, bequests, gifts, or contributions made by an individual, association or corporation of by any municipal, county, state or federal government." Acceptance of gifts requires a majority vote of the commissioners.

The idea of a charitable trust dates back about four years, some senior commissioners said last night. Discussions began when a private group of citizens offered the agency funds for planning. The gift was refused for fear of showing a bias. The blind trust, some members explained, allows them to make use of such contributions without being politically influenced.

The question comes at a time when the agency's legal bills are mounting, state grants are drying up and the commission's Oak Bluffs office needs maintenance. The front of the commission's Olde Stone Building needs to be rebuilt at a cost of about $75,000. The commission has a $90,000 balance in legal fees for a handful of ongoing lawsuits - a bill that's being paid off in monthly installments of about $7,500. The agency made use of nearly $50,000 in state grants last year, but isn't counting on any for this round of budget drafting.

"The next two to three years are especially critical for the Martha's Vineyard Commission. The commission has a lot of proactive planning to do. We have too many years of deferred maintenance on this building, and it needs a lot of improvements to catch up to where we should be to serve the community. It comes at a time when the towns are strapped financially. We have a desire to meet these needs and a a desire that the full burden of [the expenses] not fall on taxpayers," said Mark London, the agency's executive director.

The need for money was not in question last night. Commissioners described their $600,000 shoe-string budget - bleak resources which cause underpaid staff, meager planning exercises and an uncertainty that causes some members to feel anxious about project decisions guaranteed to land them in court.

"If we knew a decision would lead to a lawsuit we can't and we don't think the public can afford, we may be influenced," said commissioner Linda Sibley. "Commissioners do worry about legal bills. It's not just the applicants anymore. We've been sued for approvals as well."

"We've got developers threatening to bankrupt us," Mrs. Sibley said later. "We haven't got a sufficient financial base to ignore that. But we've been ignoring it at our financial peril."

Commissioner John Best questioned whether the towns would be willing to step up their contributions to match the agency's needs.

"None of us wants to accept gifts from private individuals. But none of the towns want to up the ante in what they're paying in support. If they feel so strongly we shouldn't accept money blindly, they'd better step up to the plate," Mr. Best said.

But commissioners by and large agreed, the identity of the donor must be shielded to prevent bias or the appearance of bias in their decisions.

"If the donations were transparent, it would influence us. We are human beings. If someone testifies that they've given us money, I know we would be influenced no matter what side they stand up on," Mrs. Sibley said.

Other leaders felt themselves capable of voting their convictions regardless of money coming in to the agency, but they still wanted to avoid the appearance of conflict.

According to the trust's policy, donors must agree to confidentiality. They must not have a project in front of the commission or plan to have such a project in the coming two years. Violation of the agreement, Mr. London said, is considered perjury.

The trust is already a legal entity set up by the commission's Boston attorney, Eric W. Wodlinger. The trust will act as an independent nonprofit, blindly accepting gifts in the name of the commission. Three trustees - Woody Filey, Marie Allen and Albert Fischer - are in charge of administering the trust. Gifts from the trust must be accepted by a majority vote of the commission.