Town Assessor Serves 30 Years, and Wants More

By IAN FEIN

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

When Michael Colaneri first walked into the West Tisbury assessors' office more than 30 years ago, the method for determining property values was simple: handwritten three-by-five cards listed the owner's name, the acreage and the number of houses.

Over the next three decades, he presided over a period of dramatic change and a department that switched to using a computer to compile data. Three employees and a professional consultant company were hired. But for the most part, the work of the West Tisbury assessors went unnoticed, unappreciated and uncontested.

That all changed this year, when a costly court case from a North Shore landowner gripped the town board in controversy and attracted attention across the state.

But Mr. Colaneri, who is now in a three-way fight to save his seat, remains unfazed. "I've enjoyed my many, many years of public service - even with all the criticism," he said in an interview last week. "Criticisms are good; they make you constantly assess your role and your involvement."

He said he is comfortable with his role.

"My record – I personally feel – speaks for itself," said Mr. Colaneri, who at 62 wears a sandy gray beard. "I've represented my neighbors and my community, and I've done it to the best of my ability - fairly, openly and honestly."

The longtime board chairman is seeking a 12th term and faces opposition for the first time since he was elected in 1973. His challengers in the annual town election next week are selectman Glenn Hearn and Seven Gates resident Jonathan Revere.

Mr. Colaneri chose not to speak about his opponents.

Born and raised in Vineyard Haven, he graduated from the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 1961 as a member of the school's second graduating class. He was drafted into the U.S. Army at the age of 21 and sent to Viet Nam, where he received the Air Medal for Heroism for his participation in Medi-vac rescues of wounded troops. (An exhibition of his Viet Nam photographs is currently on display at the Chilmark Library.)

Returning home safely in 1966, Mr. Colaneri worked as a barber in his father's shop on Main street in Vineyard Haven. In 1969 he married Karen Goethals, and they left the following year to join her brother at Duke University, where Mr. Colaneri took courses at the university medical center. After three years in North Carolina, the Colaneris settled into a new home in North Tisbury and Mr. Colaneri applied for a physician's assistant position at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. He has worked there ever since.

At the age of 29, Mr. Colaneri was elected as a West Tisbury assessor.

Prior to 1973, town selectmen served simultaneously as assessors. But they wanted other town residents to get involved, and Mr. Colaneri rose to the cause. "I've always felt the importance of public service," he said. "And I've always enjoyed it."

He served roughly two decades on the Martha's Vineyard Commission and is nearing that tenure on the town advisory board to the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank. He is chairman of the West Tisbury affordable housing committee, and the town recently commemorated his efforts by naming the road to three housing lots Michael's Way.

While Mr. Colaneri listed affordable housing advocacy as the most rewarding aspect of his public service, his profile as a town official has been shaped by his 33 years as an assessor. And for at least the last quarter-century, he has served alongside the same two colleagues - Stanton Richards and Raymond Houle. The three assessors stuck together until this year, when Mr. Houle resigned for health reasons in February. "From my perspective, it's been an honor to serve with them," Mr. Colaneri said.

When he first joined the board, it had virtually no data or established methods to determine property values. But things changed after the landmark Sudbury decision in the mid-1970s, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that towns must assess all properties at full fair market value. "Before that, I'll be honest with you, it was a bit of guess work," Mr. Colaneri said.

After the Sudbury decision, he and his fellow board members began compiling property data, driving around town together on the weekends to measure the sizes of homes. Faced with a rapidly growing town and a state department of revenue that wanted more statistical information, they soon determined that they needed help.

"It became very obvious in those years that we needed to hire a professional full-time assessor, and a mass appraisal company, to ensure that we were as accurate as possible when we determined the value of people's property," Mr. Colaneri said. "We wanted to do what was right, what was fair. And we wanted our values to be defensible."

When the work of the town's full-time assessor and appraisal company were challenged in court last summer, Mr. Colaneri deferred questions and said the board relies heavily on outside consultants. He testified under oath that he was unfamiliar with the system that they used, and he could not explain the data listed on a West Tisbury property record. He apologized to the chairman of the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board for his lack of knowledge.

Mr. Colaneri acknowledged the shortcomings of his own board. "There's no question that we've gained a lot of knowledge these last two years," he said. "Maybe we need to be a little bit more involved. A little bit closer to the flames, so to speak."

But he said he still has confidence in the work of the outside consultants. "We are placing values on people's properties now that were unimaginable 15 or 20 years ago," he said. "It's important to make sure that those numbers are right – and that everybody's numbers are right. The more information the board has the better, but I don't think the board should be sitting in the office or micro-managing."

In the interview Mr. Colaneri repeated a statement he made before the tax board last summer: "I may be the captain of the ship, but I'm not down in the engine room," he said.

Mr. Colaneri took some heat last year for unilaterally calling off mediation with town resident William W. Graham. He has avoided speaking publicly about either the mediation or the tax case, and would not comment about either in his interview. He did read a statement to voters at a special town meeting last November defending his actions.

"This case went to trial because it had to - because the gap between the parties was too great and because of the far-reaching implications of the charges made," he said at the time, adding: "The board of assessors will not apologize for defending its valuations and methods nor for acting in the best interests of not one West Tisbury taxpayer, but all of them."

In 1993, West Tisbury selectmen presented Mr. Colaneri with a certificate of recognition signed by Gov. William Weld for two decades of outstanding service on the town board of assessors.

The longtime assessor said he hopes West Tisbury voters will show their own brand of recognition at the polls next week.

"I ask that voters take the long view," he said. "Look what I've accomplished. I have been experienced, involved and committed."