By JIM HICKEY
West Tisbury selectmen last Wednesday clashed over the town policy regulating access and use of town attorney to answer legal questions.
Selectmen Richard Knabel found himself at odds with fellow board members Dianne Powers and Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter when he argued he should have the right to individually consult town attorney Ronald Rappaport to answer legal questions. Mr. Knabel said he already consulted Mr. Rappaport on a number of issues, such as no parking signs at Lambert’s Cove Beach last summer and the contract of police chief Beth Toomey, and Mr. Knabel felt it was acceptable to do so.
“We are not elected as a slate. We are elected as individuals,” Mr. Knabel said. “This is the assertion [of a selectmen’s] right to say no.”
Mr. Manter and Ms. Powers cited a town policy stipulating an entire board or commission must agree before consulting town attorney to answer a legal question. They argued that allowing individual board members to consult town attorney could, in theory, create a divergence of legal opinions and send a mixed message to the public. Mr. Manter also said the town should also be frugal when it comes to legal expenses.
“As an individual, a selectman could, in theory, ring up a $5,000 legal bill on their own . . . let’s not forget that we recently had a legal bill of $250,000,” Mr. Manter said.
But Mr. Knabel disagreed; he said individuals should have the right to ask the town attorney legal questions on their own.
“I think we are setting up a process where two people can no . . . it says the majority can overwhelm the minority,” Mr. Knabel said.
“That’s how it usually works in a democracy,” answered Mr. Manter.
Ms. Powers said allowing individual board members to consult town attorney would send the wrong message to the citizenry.
“I’m also a little troubled that you are bringing to this discussion the assumption that the other two board members will say no [to a request],” she said.
Mr. Manter and Ms. Powers did more than just disagree with their fellow selectman. Mr. Manter made a motion to add language to the town bylaws specifically prohibiting selectmen from individually consulting town attorney. The motion passed by a 2-1 vote, with Mr. Knabel casting the lone dissenting vote.