Camp Ground Considers Leaseholder Vote

By CHRIS BURRELL

They're demanding universal suffrage, the right of cottage owners in the Camp Ground to choose their leaders, but after a weekend of heavy politicking, a newly constituted tenants' group emerged with only a partial victory.

The 21-member board of directors of the Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association (MVCMA) agreed Friday to explore a proposed amendment to the bylaws - a move that would alter the governance of this historic community in the center of Oak Bluffs.

If approved, the change would clear the way for a direct vote for two board members, allowing more than 300 leaseholders the right to elect those positions.

Far from embracing the call for populism, Camp Ground directors are proceeding cautiously.

Russell Dagnall, president of the board of directors, told the Gazette yesterday that the idea needs to be investigated and no official decision from his board will come until next August.

"There are many legal issues, considerations and hurdles," he said. "We have to find out if we can legally do it."

Currently, a seat on the board of directors is open to any leaseholder, but the final selection is made by the board itself.

Leading the effort to retool the political process is the MVCMA Homeowners and Tenants Association, a group numbering roughly 100 Camp Ground residents which just formed this summer.

As energized as revolutionaries, their leaders speak of being dictated to and frustrated by a collective experience of being voiceless.

"We want to be represented," said Howard Steward, one of the leaders of the movement for democracy in the Camp Ground.

They met Saturday afternoon, just a couple hours before a general meeting of the leaseholders where the board of directors preside.

As the dust settled on the weekend of meetings, organizers of the new tenants group viewed the board of directors' initial action as progress for their cause.

"We're pleased they did it," said Mr. Steward, "It shows they're not as intractable as we once thought."

But the board of directors stopped well short of granting the homeowners group any official standing.

"They asked that we recognize them as the official voice of the leaseholders, but we unanimously voted against that because we represent the leaseholders," said Mr. Dagnall.

"It would only hinder communication to put them between us and the leaseholders," he added.

But one of the steering committee members of the tenants group, Mike Mitchell, said his association isn't giving up.

"We were very disappointed they didn't (recognize us)," he said yesterday. "Our take is, ‘You're our landlord. How can you represent us?' It's a conflict."

Leaseholders own their cottages and homes but lease the land on an annual basis from the MVCMA.

Mr. Mitchell said some leaseholders feel too intimidated to lodge complaints with the board of directors, fearing reprisals.

Saturday's meeting of the tenants group, he said, was much more lively than the leaseholders forum.

"We want to be able to organize the complaints from people who are frustrated and don't know who to talk to," said Mr. Mitchell. "It would be in addition to the board, not a replacement. It's meant to be another avenue to work for a solution to the communication problem."

Last week, Mr. Steward criticized the board's leadership, saying it lacks transparency.

"We don't get the full story about how decisions are made," he said, citing the fact that minutes of board meetings don't record how specific board members voted or identify which board members expressed a certain point.

The latest discord in the Camp Ground comes a year after some residents mounted a petition campaign, protesting a proposal under consideration by the board that recommended financing a $1.9 million restoration of the 125-year-old Tabernacle.

The spending and fundraising for repairs of the landmark structure turned controversial last summer when leaseholders learned that the board had miscalculated how much money it would take to restore the Tabernacle.

Some Camp Ground residents argued 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.

But unforeseen costs to replace the footings for the iron building, coupled with other repairs, sent spending to the $1.4 million mark, leaving roughly $400,000 in the coffers.

This summer, complaints focused less on the Tabernacle and more on new rules from the board, banning boat storage, for example.

The tenants group now plans to survey residents and ask them to list specific concerns.

"We're trying to become a voice for the tenants," said Mr. Mitchell. "I would like to have direct representation. I would personally like to see all board members elected directly."

In Mr. Mitchell's view, "The current board doesn't feel there's a problem."

Mr. Dagnall yesterday bristled at the impression that discontent is bubbling up in the Camp Ground's tranquil setting on the far side of Circuit avenue.

"People are saying everybody's up in arms. I don't feel that way," he said. "Overall the meeting (Saturday for leaseholders) was very smooth."