Town Meeting Sends a Difficult Mandate

Fallout Begins on Day Following Vote; Many Questions Remain Unanswered for Both Tax Case and Town Hall

By IAN FEIN

With a town hall renovation project in tatters, unpaid bills stacked high and a legal expense account on empty, the question left hanging in West Tisbury yesterday was: What next?

Despite warnings from selectman John Early and assessor Michael Colaneri at the special town meeting on Wednesday night that a no vote on the legal bills would lead to litigation and cause the assessors' attorney to resign, yesterday there were no immediate signs that either were imminent.

The ongoing tax case between assessors and town resident William W. Graham continued yesterday without interruption. Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board officials and attorneys from both sides traveled to the Island this week to conduct a second view of properties related to the case. The view is expected to conclude this afternoon.

Attorney Ellen Hutchinson, who represents the town assessors, attended the view yesterday and, according to a tax board official, did not mention the unpaid legal bill issue. Ms. Hutchinson was unavailable for comment.

"From the perspective of the board we know nothing. There was no discussion of an issue. We're proceeding as normal," said Massachusetts Appellate Tax board chief counsel David Cella, who attended the view and was reached on his cellular phone last night.

Even if Ms. Hutchinson wanted to pull out of the case, it is unclear whether tax board rules or attorneys' ethical guidelines would allow it.

Attorney Richard Wulsin, who represents Mr. Graham in the case and has extensive experience at the tax board, said yesterday that he did not think Ms. Hutchinson would try to remove herself from the case at this juncture.

The conclusion of the view will set a deadline for filing final briefs. A tax board decision is expected sometime in the spring.

"I don't think that the vote will in fact have a significant impact on the way the case is handled from the town's perspective," Mr. Wulsin said. "I don't think that the town or Attorney Hutchinson have a unilateral right to make a decision about her future involvement in the case. I think she will continue to represent the town through its conclusion."

Mr. Colaneri told voters on Wednesday that if the legal bills are rejected, it would force the town into a settlement with Mr. Graham. Some voters urged the selectmen to do just that.

In fact it remains unclear whether the town meeting vote will have any effect on settlement negotiations. Mr. Graham said yesterday that he was still waiting to hear back from selectmen on the matter.

The threat of lawsuits from other vendors in the tax case has also been held up as a possibility, but top officials from two appraisal companies hired by town assessors during the hearing said yesterday that they had no desire to litigate, and that in fact neither town assessors nor selectmen had contacted them to share any concerns about their bills.

Martin Coleman Jr., owner of Coleman & Sons Appraisal Group of Waltham, said he was hoping to receive a call from selectmen to discuss the bills. Company appraiser Kenneth J. Croft 3rd., who was hired by assessors to value the Graham properties and testify as an expert witness, submitted two bills totaling more than $70,000.

"Of course, naturally, I'm perfectly willing to attend a meeting. I would like to know what their questions are," Mr. Coleman said. "I look forward to coming down there sometime, and hope we can resolve this as soon as possible."

Kevin Comer, president of Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro, said the company made an initial discount of $10,000 from its original $30,000 bill when contacted by West Tisbury principal assessor Jo-Ann Resendes more than a month ago. He said he had not heard from the town about any other misgivings since then.

Mr. Comer said he was also willing to sit down with town officials to discuss the bills.

"We would discuss whatever options they wanted to discuss," Mr. Comer said. "We would all like to see this put behind us. The town has been our client for a very long time, and we would do whatever we can to work with them on this issue."

Selectman Glenn Hearn, the first town official to publicly question the legal bills, said yesterday that he takes the Wednesday night vote as a serious mandate.

"It was very clear to me that the voters were upset about the whole situation, and that the selectmen are supposed to straighten this thing out," he said.

Meanwhile, the direction of the town hall renovation project remains in a state of limbo.

"What next? I haven't got the slightest idea," said building committee chairman Ernest Mendenhall, who would have served as project manager if the renovation went forward.

Project architect Deborah Durland of New Bedford said yesterday that she thinks there might be room to work on a smaller plan for the renovation, but that decision would have to come from the building committee. If the committee - or selectmen - decide to go in another direction, her work with the town will be done.

Discussion on the town hall project will likely be a topic at the next meeting of the selectmen, who all also sit on the town hall building committee. Mr. Hearn acknowledged yesterday that he does not know what will happen to the makeup of the committee.

Former selectman John Alley, who lives across the street from the town hall, praised the building committee for all of its work on the project but called for the selectmen to appoint an entirely new group of residents.

"It's time for the committee to step down," Mr. Alley said. "It's important that we have a new building committee look at new options - all of the options - and bring back another plan."

Voters appeared unsure on Wednesday where to go next with the project - whether to invest in scaled-back repairs to the present town hall, or to build a new town hall elsewhere in town and find a different use for the current building.

But sentiment appeared nearly unanimous that - whatever the town chooses to do - the project must stay under the earlier estimate of $3.7 million.

"When you get into the price tags that were thrown around, people just can't afford it," Mr. Alley said. "That's what the voters were saying - they were sending a message. I trust the message was received."

Mr. Hearn said that it was.

"They definitely want us to stick with the $3.7 million," he said. "I think whatever the committee is, that's going to be their goal - come up with something that stays within that budget. That's what I heard from voters."