Bureaucratic black holes, poor communication and a lack of tact that borders on comedic are to blame for a series of recent misunderstandings between the Aquinnah town government and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).
The first fiasco began in late July when building inspector Jerry Wiener sent a letter tribal chairman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais citing the tribe for violating town zoning laws and the state building code on three building projects.
The permitting issue was especially sensitive given that one of the projects without a permit is a small shed and pier, located on the tribally owned Cook lands which front Menemsha Pond. The shed and pier were at the center of a landmark sovereignty case ultimately decided four years ago by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Mr. Wiener’s part said last month that he had made numerous attempts to contact tribal members before issuing the citation, and his letter stated that several requests have been made on behalf of the town for the necessary paperwork, with no response.
But Mr. Wiener did not know that three hand-delivered applications had been lying in the town hall since 2006, stamped and logged as received. According to tribal administrator Tobias Vanderhoop, the applications were brought to the town hall by planner Durwood (Woody) Vanderhoop.
Somehow the forms never made their way to Mr. Wiener.
The tribe is a sovereign nation, the first in the state to be federally recognized, in 1987. But four years ago the state’s highest court ruled that the Wampanoags are bound to follow state and local zoning laws for land use projects because of a settlement agreement signed between the town and the tribe in 1986. The court case tested the agreement against the doctrine of sovereign immunity, and the supreme court ruled that the agreement trumped the tribe’s sovereign immunity, at least on the subject of land use.
The three projects: a meteorological tower preparatory to building a wind turbine, the pier and shed, and a community center, have already cleared a number of town and regional permitting authorities, including the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Building permits are the final step in the town process.
In a separate incident the following month, town coordinator Jeffrey Burgoyne was instructed by selectman Camille Rose to contact the tribe. On August 19 he informed Ms. Andrews-Maltais that the tribe would have to either cancel or attempt to reschedule the powwow, an annual event held in the circle at the Aquinnah Cliffs, because of possible electrical concerns and a wedding scheduled for 4 p.m. at the neighboring Vanderhoop Homestead.
According to Ms. Andrews-Maltais, work on the powwow, which is scheduled to take place tomorrow, began back in January of this year.
In its fourth year, the powwow is held shortly after labor day and is a regionally attended event.
Selectman and board chairman Jim Newman was in New York at the time of call. However, contacted by phone, he expressed his emphatic disagreement with the decision.
On August 21, Mr. Burgoyne got back in touch with the tribe to say that the powwow was back on.
“This has been in the works, every year they do this thing. I said not under any circumstances will it be canceled,” Mr. Newman told the Gazette yesterday.
“There’s a lack of communication and a lack of respect coming from the town,” he added.
At a selectmen’s meeting Tuesday which was attended by Ms. Andrews-Maltais and Mr. Vanderhoop, Mr. Newman was in damage control mode.
“I apologize for the lack of communication,” he said referring to the building permit issue. “The selectmen never had a discussion. Jerry was just doing his job insofar as he was working in a vacuum.”
Ms. Rose said people at the tribe had not returned telephone calls on the issue. Invoking a 2006 memorandum of understanding between the town and tribe Ms. Rose said that a protocol was in place for conflict resolution.
“The spirit of the agreement is not about conflict resolution, it’s about avoiding conflict,” said Mr. Vanderhoop.
On Tuesday a tentative plan was made for the tribe to contact Mr. Weiner to arrange a meeting to process the permits.
Meanwhile, Ms. Andrews-Maltais called for a more collaborative approach to the permitting process, arguing that under the current method the tribe and town are doubling up on time and labor. (The tribe has its own land use commission and planning process.)
“It makes no sense to duplicate the process we’re spending the same dollars for the same expertise,” she said.
She also suggested that quarterly meetings proposed in the memorandum of understanding finally be held.
Barring extreme weather, the powwow will take place tomorrow, starting at noon and continuing until early evening.