When Warren Doty first moved the Vineyard in the late 1970s, the Menemsha harborfront was booming.
“Then there were five boats landing 10,000 pounds of sea scallops every three days,” he recalled. “There was a work force of ten shuckers in three different shucking shacks. That’s 30 Islanders working on the docks with about fifteen on boats. The season lasted from October to April every year. There were 45 to 50 jobs in Menemsha for six to eight months during the season.
“Now, in the month of March, there are maybe ten people working in Menemsha. We’re down to 20 per cent of what we used to be.”
It was partly this memory of a vibrant fishing port which motivated Mr. Doty to run for town selectman 10 years ago. He ran as a write-in candidate that year and lost. The following year, in 1999, he took out papers and ran with his name on the ballot won. He took the seat vacated by Pamela Goff, who had stepped down after 12 years, and joined Alex Preston and Herbert Hancock on the board.
When town voters go to the polls on Wednesday, they are expected to reelect Mr. Doty to his fourth term in office. He is running unopposed, but ever humble, in a recent interview at the town hall, he insisted he is not a shoe-in.
Over the past nine years, Mr. Doty has executed a quiet leadership as a selectman. He is mild mannered, but has been known to raise his voice when necessary, and as chairman to bang the selectmen’s gavel. He has even brought — and used — a desk bell to maintain order among his board.
He points to many accomplishments. He fought to build affordable housing in town and backed improvements to the Chilmark school. He believes in transparent town government and he is adamant about maintaining a working harbor. He works to protect Chilmark’s rural character but also advocates for sensible change.
In 1977, Mr. Doty and his wife, Nan, both public school teachers, left Philadelphia, Pa. for the Island where Mrs. Doty spent her childhood summers. “We were really interested in small country living and Chilmark really embodied that,” Mr. Doty said. Mrs. Doty took a job at the West Tisbury school, but Mr. Doty did not return to the classroom. “I thought I was going to be a fisherman,” he said. “But then I went out on a boat, got very seasick and broke my arm.”
Nevertheless, he did not abandon the waterfront or the fishing industry. In 1984, he began a wholesale fish buying business, which he first ran from the back of a truck parked on the Menemsha docks. He later moved the operation to Vineyard Haven. He joined the Massachusetts Fisheries Recovery Committee and became president of the Martha’s Vineyard Fishing Association. “I found the fishing community to be very open and accepting here,” he said. “If you show up and are ready to work and work hard, you will be accepted by people.”
Over the years, he has watched with concern as the fishing industry has foundered on the rocks of overfishing and a daunting maze of changes in federal and state regulations. “The change has been dynamic,” he said. “It has devastated small-boat harbors. The six-month fluke season has been shortened to a six-week fluke season. A six-month striped bass season has been shortened into a four-week striped bass season. A cod season which was 365 days has been shortened to just 50 days. It’s very difficult to survive in the old way in terms of the commercial industry today.”
In 2003, after nearly 20 years, Mr. Doty closed his business.
As selectman, he took up the cause of the remaining fishermen. At their annual town meeting last year, Chilmark voters agreed to create a shellfish committee and hire a shellfish propagation agent. Mr. Doty is the selectmen’s representative to the committee. Under his guidance, the town has applied for a grant to create an offshore mussel farm. “Right now, the town is owning a fantastic harbor resource,” he said. “To preserve it, you need the valuable product coming out of the waterfront, so now we need to preserve that.”
But his work as a selectman has not been confined to the Menemsha harbor. A former member of the Chilmark school committee and the town planning board, he has also worked to improve the town elementary school and preserve the town center. “I like the idea of town government controlling the town and shaping the future of the town,” he said. “Years ago, we had the phrase, ‘Small is beautiful.’ Decentralized decision-making and participatory government. Chilmark is the perfect example.”
The projects he takes the most pride in over the years have adhered to his philosophy: remodeling the Chilmark library and keeping it at Beetlebung Corner, moving the Menemsha School but keeping it in the town center, maintaining the Chilmark Community Center as vibrant place in both the on and off-seasons. “Many towns have decided they don’t have enough room in their town centers, so they have moved things to open land,” Mr. Doty said. “We haven’t done that. We don’t have a lot of land and things are crowded and I think that is terrific.”
As for the future of the town, he said much work remains to be done. The fire department needs a permanent home. Affordable housing remains a problem. During Mr. Doty’s tenure as selectman, Chilmark has awarded three youth lots and two resident homesites. In that same time, an average of up to 20 new houses have been built each year. “We have 16 [affordable housing] units in the planning stage, but until 16 people live in those units, it’s just a plan. It will be a great accomplishment when I can go shake hands with someone standing in the doorway of one of those units,” he said.
“We need young people here and workers. We don’t want to become a community of just retired people, nor do we want to become a community of millionaires. How do we do that? I think that’s the challenge right now,” he continued. “I want to see 20 50-foot boats with two to three people working on them. That would give us 50 good fishing jobs in Menemsha. And where are these people going to live?”
When he first became selectman, Mr. Doty said he devoted ten hours a week to the job. Today, the hours he spends working on town affairs has doubled. He attends two to three meetings a week, travels to Providence and Boston to advocate for the fishermen and attends community events on the weekends. But he’s still not yet ready to give it up.
“I wouldn’t run for reelection if I didn’t find it interesting,” he said.