Skipper Manter Fits Many Roles in West Tisbury

By IAN FEIN

Second in a series of profiles leading up to the West Tisbury town election.

Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter spent most of his childhood watching his family serve the town of West Tisbury.

His grandfather was a selectman for 45 years, his father and grandfather both wore the badge as chief of police, and his mother served as the town accountant for 35 years.

So it comes as little surprise that Mr. Manter - who goes by Skipper, a nickname he received only days after his birth - also chose a life of public service to the town.

"It's in my genes," Mr. Manter said in an interview last week. "I'm enthusiastic about serving. I've dedicated close to 100 per cent of my life to the town - professionally and otherwise."

Photo

Mr. Manter joined the West Tisbury police department some 30 years ago, at the age of 18. He has spent almost 20 years on the town finance committee, served as town moderator for 12 years and is nearing a decade on the Up-Island Regional School Committee.

And in the upcoming annual town election in April, he is running against challenger James Alley for a second, three-year term as selectman.

"If people want me to serve somewhere, I'm more than willing to jump up and take it," Mr. Manter said during a rare morning not spent at a town board meeting or patrolling the streets as a police sergeant. "I just rally to the cause whenever I see there is an opening.

"It brings me a warm and wonderful feeling, to be able to serve people in the different situations that come up," Mr. Manter said. "It gives you a great feeling of accomplishment when someone comes up to you, either the next day or the next summer, and thanks you for the work that you've done."

Because of his different seats, Mr. Manter often attends meetings where more than one - and as many as three - of his different roles are represented. Some of his fellow finance and school committee members have noted that it is not always clear which hat he is wearing during those discussions.

But Mr. Manter said he does not see any conflict.

"It's not confusing to me, even though it might be to others," he said. "I always make judgments in the best interest of the town, regardless of which committee I am on."

Mr. Manter plans to run for reelection on the regional school committee this fall but said he does not intend to seek another term on the finance committee next spring. He said that after almost 18 years, it is time to let others have their turn sifting through the town's finances.

He is opposed to the proposed town bylaw that would limit the number of elected offices any one person could hold, and he questioned the motives behind it. He noted that he is currently the only town official whom the bylaw would affect, and that, aside from selectman, he ran uncontested for his other town offices.

Photo

"What's the need for it? I'm only there because people have chosen to put me there. If they didn't think I could handle the different positions, they wouldn't have voted me in," Mr. Manter said. "I think it's important in the democratic process for the electorate to have as many choices as possible. To legislate the choices on the ballot, I don't think is appropriate."

All of his jobs are equally important, Mr. Manter said, but he is willing to fight to keep his selectman seat because he wants to be a leader in the community.

"I enjoy the job very much and think I'm doing an adequate job," Mr. Manter said. "I told voters three years ago that I wouldn't let them down, and I don't think that I have."

Mr. Manter listed improvements to the town cemetery and roads as two of his prouder accomplishments from the last three years. He acknowledged that this past year has been a difficult time in town government, but said he thinks the worst is in the past.

While he has heard some concerns about the overall atmosphere of the town hall, Mr. Manter does not believe there is anything particularly askew in West Tisbury. "I haven't experienced it," he said. "If you're looking for information that is public, people will be helpful. If you're looking for something you're not entitled to, they might not be."

Regardless of the current situation, Mr. Manter said he would like to see town employees receive once-a-year training on customer relations. "Even the best town hall in the world could realize some benefit from sharpening our people skills," he said.

The fate of the West Tisbury town hall building remains unclear, Mr. Manter said, but a new direction for the project could emerge after the April town meeting, where a number of different warrant articles will address the issue.

"Where the end result is, I don't know. But we will continue to look and try to find a project that people will support," Mr. Manter said. "To me it's obviously a very important and sentimental project. I hope people realize that the town hall is the center of any New England community."

Mr. Manter supported the $5.5 million price tag for the failed town hall renovation project last fall, a political stance that proved unpopular with many voters as well as his fellow finance committee members. He offered to step aside after six years on the town hall building committee, but the finance committee opted to keep him as its representative.

Photo

As a longtime finance committee member, Mr. Manter has earned a reputation as a fiscal hawk. (Before signing the $300,000 architectural contract for the now-defunct town hall project, he convinced the firm to take over its own postage costs.) But during his tenure as selectman, the overall town budget has increased at a rate of more than 10 per cent a year.

He said that his new hat has given him a different perspective on town spending.

"There are concerns out there. I've heard it recently, and it does not fall on deaf ears. But trying to balance it all together - what the town needs, and what people can afford - is a challenge," Mr. Manter said. "There is nothing individually out of whack with any one of the budgets."

West Tisbury currently has the highest average residential property tax bill of any town on the Cape and Islands. Mr. Manter suggested that the large amount of conservation land in town, which shifts a greater percentage of the tax burden onto residential homeowners, is partly responsible for the rising tax bills.

Though he steered clear of speculating on the outcome of the Graham tax case against town assessors, Mr. Manter said that the selectmen must prepare to address the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board decision, which is expected later this year.

Mr. Manter has publicly defended the assessors on more than one occasion, and has asked townspeople not to pass judgment on the case. He expressed support for the assessors' $12,000 in travel expenses incurred last summer, and led efforts to pay the $225,000 in legal bills from the case, which a large majority of voters supported in January after rejecting payment last November.

As a private landowner, Mr. Manter has his own pending legal matters against a town board.

He filed a lawsuit against the West Tisbury conservation commission in Dukes County Superior Court last fall, and also appealed at least two commission decisions to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Neither matter has been resolved, and Mr. Manter has refused to speak about the issue.

The land use dispute, which dates back more than two years, challenges the environmental impacts of unpermitted activities Mr. Manter does at his small family farm on Muddy Cove in Tisbury Great Pond.

Photo

Mr. Manter said last week that when he is not serving the town, he can almost always be found tending to his farm. He has never lived anywhere other than West Tisbury and never plans to leave.

Unless, that is, he is off to Walt Disney World.

As anyone who knows Mr. Manter can attest, the Orlando, Fla., resort is his favorite vacation spot. He first went in the late 1970s and now travels there at least once a year. And even when here he wears the affinity plainly. At Christmas he donned a Santa hat with Mickey ears; he keeps a Mickey Mouse doll and other Disney pictures on his desk at the police station, and he almost always wears a Disney-themed American flag pin - which he described as a symbol of his patriotism.

"Like the patriotic pins that a lot of politicians wear since Sept. 11, this is my same expression of support for my country," Mr. Manter said. "It just happens to have a little Mickey on it."