Camp Ground Faces Change
New Tenants Association Forms, Calling for Democratic Reforms in Camp Meeting Association's Governing Board of Directors
By CHRIS BURRELL
It's not exactly Bastille Day over in the Camp Ground, but make no mistake, there's a revolution brewing in this historically religious, gingerbread enclave in the center of Oak Bluffs - and it's all about democracy.
Nearly 100 Camp Ground residents banded together this summer and are clamoring for something they say is sorely lacking: the chance to choose at least some of their leaders.
The 21 members of the board of directors of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) are self-appointed. Leaseholders - who number more than 300 currently - can nominate themselves to serve, but the final decision rests with the board itself.
The newly formed MVCMA Homeowners and Tenants Association is officially lobbying to amend the Camp Ground bylaws to allow three members of the board to be elected by popular vote.
"The point is they don't really have a constituency. They're not elected by leaseholders of Camp Ground," said Howard Steward, one of the leaders of the fledgling tenants association and a retired New York city police detective.
Camp Ground residents own their houses but lease the land from the MVCMA on an annual basis.
Mr. Steward is adamant that leaseholders and their families need a voice. "People ought to be represented. They're tired of being dictated to," he added.
The issue is expected to come before the board of directors at a meeting today. But their meetings are closed, not just to the general public, but also to leaseholders themselves.
Tomorrow at 3 p.m. is the general leaseholders meeting, and the call to inject some populism into the Camp Ground governance is up for discussion again.
Russell Dagnall, the board president for the past two years, said yesterday, "I wouldn't know anything until we meet tomorrow."
But he added that he believed the people behind the movement for change are the same ones who criticized board members last year for their handling of the Tabernacle repairs and the money spent on the project.
Indeed, some leaders of the tenants association who spoke to the Gazette this week confirmed that their efforts are, at least in part, rooted in the controversy over the Tabernacle spending, a controversy that erupted last August when news surfaced of a plan to finance a $1.9 million, full-scale restoration of the 125-year-old historic landmark.
Some leaseholders protested the plan, arguing that the board had assured them more than three years ago that the price of the Tabernacle overhaul would be $1 million with another $1 million set aside as an endowment.
Instead, the board approved almost $1.4 million in repairs and upgrades - including as the unforeseen need for new footings - and then decided to pursue an additional and ambitious $1.9 million restoration to finish the job.
The board of directors backed off that idea in the aftermath of the petition and letters of protest and opted for a scaled-down approach that included the scraping and painting of the steel superstructure completed last spring.
Now, some leaseholders are pointing to other board decisions as the reason they are pushing for change and demanding some direct representation on the board that governs the Camp Ground.
"In January, they outlawed boats and trailers in the Camp Ground. They never went to boat owners and said, ‘What do you think?' " said resident Mike Mitchell. "It's an Island. Having a boat is a reasonable thing to do."
Other rule-making from the board has rankled some of leaseholders and fueled the calls for taking these steps toward democracy in the Camp Ground. Rules banning vinyl windows and fencing, for example, have upset some residents.
But it's not so much the rules themselves, but the anger over having no voice in their formulation that has fomented this uprising.
"When you sign up to get a cottage, you sign a one-page lease and agree to follow all the rules and regulations, but the Camp Ground never gives you a copy of the rules," said Mr. Mitchell. "You find out when you violate them."
Mr. Steward said, "The new buzzword is transparency.
"There are a lot of the things with the board of directors that people don't seem to know about," he added. "We don't get the full story about how decisions are made."
Leaseholders can request copies of the minutes from a board meeting, but the minutes don't record how specific board members voted or identify which board members expressed a certain point, said Mr. Steward.
"There's a pervasive fear of asking too many questions and getting on the wrong side of the board," he said.
Isabel Engley agrees. "People are frightened they're going to lose their cottage," said the woman who has owned her home on the Camp Ground for 35 years. "I try to impress upon them you can't lose your cottage just from disagreeing with someone."
Mrs. Engley said the last tenants meeting on August 8 drew more than 80 people.
In her view, the surge in real estate values on the Island and in the Camp Ground has altered the political mood there.
"A couple houses just sold for over $400,000," she said. "People want to have a say now."
The board of directors needs young blood, a new generation of leadership, she said. "We feel everyone in the Camp Ground should be able to vote," Mrs. Engley added.
Mr. Mitchell is optimistic about making headway both today and tomorrow without resorting to pitchforks. "We want to be viewed as a positive force, not a negative one," he said. "Four members of the board attended our last meeting and listened. They're cooperative and open to input. We're very encouraged."