Two Cynthias Vie for One Seat in West Tisbury Assessors Race

By IAN FEIN

They share the same first name and a passion for West Tisbury town politics, but the similarities end there, and voters in West Tisbury will be faced with a clear choice when they go to the polls in a special election for town assessor next week.

Cynthia Mitchell and Cynthia Riggs face off for a one-year seat on the town board of assessors in the election next Thursday. Only one race is on the ballot; polls will be open at the town public safety building from noon to 8 p.m.

Mrs. Mitchell is a former town selectman and treasurer who is part of the West Tisbury political establishment and a longtime town hall insider. Ms. Riggs is an innkeeper and author who is a frequent government critic and watchdog.

Both candidates this week said that their interest in the assessors' position stems from the Graham tax case against the board, which raised sharp concerns about certain practices inside the town assessors office.

Ms. Riggs suggested that her position as an outsider could prove valuable.

"I think we need a dissident. Disagreement is healthy in government," said Ms. Riggs, 74, who runs the Cleaveland House, an 18th-century bed and breakfast on Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. "And Cindy [Mitchell] is more of a part of the good-old-boy network than some of the good old boys."

Mrs. Mitchell rebutted the claim, and said that her support among town hall staff members could help bring about change.

"I never was a good old boy, even when I was," said Mrs. Mitchell, 56, executive director of the nonprofit Island Health Inc. "Cynthia [Riggs] and I both want to change things in the West Tisbury assessors' office. But the question voters have to ask is, ‘Who can make it happen?'"

The only woman to ever serve as a West Tisbury selectman, Mrs. Mitchell logged four terms on the board and 17 years as town treasurer, but retreated from the political stage after she lost a close selectmen's race in 2002. At the time Mrs. Mitchell was embroiled in heated controversy over the Steamship Authority, and had aligned herself with a group of selectmen who were advocating for the interests of the city of New Bedford in a ferry service dispute.

Mrs. Mitchell has been out of the political spotlight since then, and said she could count on one hand the number of times she visited town hall in the three years following her departure. She said she decided to reenter the ring this winter because she felt that the board of assessors were doing a poor job of communicating with town voters. Mrs. Mitchell said she has no interest in holding any town office other than assessor.

"The one thing I noticed during the debate about the Graham case was that the voice of the assessors was missing, and there was no real information emanating from the board. And I found that troubling," Mrs. Mitchell said. "I felt it was a natural time for me to step in and help, because explaining things to voters was a big part of what I did as a selectman."

Ms. Riggs, who has served on both the Martha's Vineyard Commission and town historic commission, said that she too has experience explaining technical information to the public - both from her degree in geology and her time as a science writer for National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institute. But she admits that she ran for the elected assessor position primarily to oppose Mrs. Mitchell, who got her foot in the door early when she was appointed interim assessor two months ago.

"I feel strongly that in a democratic society every election should be contested," said Ms. Riggs, who ran two unsuccessful campaigns against selectman John Early in 1998 and 2004. "I think the voters ought to have a choice."

The open seat on the board of assessors arose in early February, when longtime member Raymond Houle resigned for health reasons. West Tisbury selectmen originally planned to fill the position with a one-year appointment, but they called the special election after their intentions were determined to be inconsistent because they placed a finance committee seat vacated the same week on the annual town election ballot.

Selectmen appointed Mrs. Mitchell to an interim two-month term on the board, against the advice of their town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport. Mrs. Mitchell has been an assessor for the last 70 days, and the winner of the special election next week will fill out the 11 months remaining in the term vacated by Mr. Houle.

Ms. Riggs this week criticized the course of events that led to the appointment, and reiterated that the position should have appeared on the annual town election ballot.

"I feel very strongly that there was a serious slipup," Ms. Riggs said. "And the way Cindy was appointed, she was clearly hand-picked to fill that position with the expectation that she will have the advantage being an incumbent."

Mrs. Mitchell said she does not feel the appointment has given her an advantage, and she did not agree that the position should have appeared on the annual town election ballot.

In a heated three-way race for the other assessor seat that did appear on the annual ballot, incumbent Michael Colaneri earned reelection by a margin of only ten votes. Mrs. Mitchell this week said the outcome expressed a vote of no-confidence in the current board.

"It showed that people were really mad at the assessors," Mrs. Mitchell said. "It was a huge vote against the status quo."

Mrs. Mitchell and Ms. Riggs are both advocating for some change in the assessors' office, and they both agree that the department needs to improve its communication and interaction with the public. To that end, Mrs. Mitchell in the last two months has identified the department's legal budget as a separate line item in the budget and helped organize a public forum with town taxpayers.

But the two candidates, both of whom have met with resident William W. Graham to discuss his concerns, differ in their perspectives about the still-pending case.

Ms. Riggs said the town owes Mr. Graham a debt of gratitude for questioning and exposing the workings of the assessors' department. She said the assessors operated with little or no public attention for almost three decades, and as a result developed a number of questionable practices. From her reading of the transcripts from the Graham hearing, Ms. Riggs said the assessors' methods for valuing wetlands and determining different neighborhoods need to be changed. She said that she believed Mr. Graham has a very strong case.

"The testimony is essentially a window on the operation of the assessors' office and the people in it," Ms. Riggs said. "I think most of us who have read the testimony or parts of it have some pretty serious concerns. I see some serious problems with the assessors' office."

Mrs. Mitchell said she has read the closing briefs from the Graham case, but not the transcripts. And as a sitting assessor, she says she is unable to comment on the merits of the case. She did say she is not convinced that any of the assessors' valuation methods need to be changed, but she said some of the topics warrant consideration.

"The decision in the case is going to lead us naturally in one direction or another. But no matter what the decision is, some of these things need to be looked at," Mrs. Mitchell said. "Concerns have been raised; we have to take a look at them. We'd be crazy not to, and so we will."