Exercise Caution Over Blind Trust, Commission Told

By MANDY LOCKE

Pleas to the Martha's Vineyard Commission to slow plans for creating a blind trust came from every possible side last night - supporters, critics and even the agency's own members.

Three of the commission's newest members opposed the formation of such a charitable trust, and several other members demanded further investigation before accepting gifts from the trust.

"I cannot imagine a donation of any size powerful enough to sway the commission. The commission is made up of 16 independent thinkers who won't be pushed around. Donations are not going to affect how we do our business, but it may create the perception that it will," said commissioner Doug Sederholm, who has served on the commission for just more than a year.

"Whatever [money] we raise in the blind trust is not important enough to risk that. Public perception, even by our detractors, is important. It's just not worth it," he added.

The commission came under fire from several public officials last fall when it announced intentions to collect donations through an independent charitable trust. As established, the trust, to be managed by three former commissioners, would shield the identity of donors. Donations would help tackle planning projects, legal defense and building repair.

The commission hosted a public forum last night to allow officials and citizens to air their concerns about the trust proposal. A half dozen citizens attended the forum; only one supported the concept.

Reasons for opposing the trust ran the gamut. Some suggested that shielding the identity of donors would be an affront to American ideals. Some thought that hidden information would tarnish the commission's reputation. Barbara Day, a supporter of the commission, argued that full disclosure of donor identity would actually foster giving.

"It's more important to recognize supporters than detractors," Mrs. Day said, encouraging commissioners to print the names of the donors in the newspapers. "It helps the MVC come out of isolation. It lets you know when you are in trouble, who your supporters are. A blind trust just casts you in the shadows."

"What you're saying is that you don't trust the public to trust you," she continued.

Several critics urged the commission to tackle $270,000 worth of building repairs, planning initiatives, legal expenses and salary increases - a proposal floated for the coming year - with tax dollars. MVC executive director Mark London has said the commission may need that much additional money for each of the next three years.

"First and foremost, you should go right to the towns. Risk having them turn you down. As much as I disagree with some of your decisions, your debt is our debt," said Whit Manter, a resident of West Tisbury.

Deacon Perrotta, newly appointed to the commission by the Oak Bluffs selectmen, also urged fellow commissioners to tack on all the agency's needs to the town assessments.

"I've been in a situation before when governments cut their budgets to make it more palatable. But the time comes when you have to bite the bullet. The commission has real expenses. We should submit a true budget to the people of Martha's Vineyard," said Mr. Perrotta.

If the commission had already included the $270,000 of proposed expenses in this year's budget, towns would have seen a 50 per cent increase in their assessments over last year's rates. As it is, assessments increased 12 per cent over last year, to a total of $676,000. According to the agency's legislative charter, Chapter 831, the commission can charge Island towns up to .036 per cent of the equalized property valuation. Currently, the commission is only charging towns about one-sixth of that $3.6 million cap.

Mr. London rebuffed claims that the agency failed to submit a true accounting of the organization's expenses to towns.

"We make every attempt to submit a bare-bones budget," Mr. London said. "But it's not that clearcut or straightforward. We can do more with more money, so we put two numbers out there. The first is the basic number to have the commission function. The second is desirable funding to help us do our job better."

The bulk of this extra $270,000 in funds would cover mounting legal bills.

The commission is fighting lawsuits on a number of fronts, including challenges related to Down Island Golf Club and the southern woodlands as well as two affordable housing projects the commission approved in the last year.

The agency already earmarked $120,000 in its budget to cover legal costs.

Of the $270,000 in extra needs, about $70,000 would help with Islandwide planning efforts, aimed to enhance town by town planning exercises currently underway. Another $50,000 would help repair the commission's Oak Bluffs office, the Olde Stone Building, which has fallen into disrepair over the last several years. The front entrance is completely blocked because of structural deficiencies.

The remainder of the funds would help bring staff salaries up to competitive levels, Mr. London said.

According to the established guidelines of the blind trust, donors must adhere 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 would be considered perjury.

But critics said last night that such precautions are not enough to protect the commission from pressure or the perception of influence.

"Your donations are far more likely to come from someone who doesn't want something approved," said Mr. Manter, offering an example that members of the Vineyard Golf Club might donate money in an attempt to persuade the commission to block a luxury golf course on the southern woodlands.

"Could we get them to sign a statement that they have no financial interest [in a project before or coming before the commission]?" asked commissioner Linda Sibley.

"It's almost close to impossible to do that on the Vineyard. Everyone is connected to someone else on this Island," Mr. Manter replied.

"Sunshine is the only bleach?" asked Mrs. Sibley.

"To get clean you'd have to have [a donor] who has never even heard of Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Manter said.

Despite sharp criticisms aimed at the commission's blind trust concept, the discussion remained civil until the very end. Brion McGroarty, an opponent of the commission and supporter of the Down Island Golf Club, said that the blind trust would perpetuate the unbalanced influence that wealthy citizens and towns have on the land use planning agency.

"To quote Linda Sibley . . . I know several wealthy people who would give money to the blind trust," Mr. McGroarty said.

Mrs. Sibley stopped Mr. McGroarty in his tracks, insisting him she had never said such a thing.

"I may have said, ‘There are wealthy people who would give money to the blind trust.' There's a big difference. Probably poor people out there would give money as well," said Mrs. Sibley.

The discussion promptly ended, but Mrs. Sibley confronted Mr. McGroarty after the forum broke up, saying to him, "I'm bloody sick and tired of people misquoting me."

During the Down Island golf debate, Mrs. Sibley had been accused by some opponents of making racially inflammatory remarks; but critics were never able to produce a record of such comment, and she denied making any.

The commission assured the public that they will continue to solicit feedback and will further discuss the blind trust among themselves in the coming months.

"It's very important for us to get feedback because we obviously haven't cracked the nut," said commissioner Megan Ottens-Sargent.