A long-simmering controversy about the use and management of Chilmark’s town tennis courts will come before voters at annual town meeting next week, where residents will also weigh in on upping the short-term rental tax, a variety of funding articles and a nearly $14.5 million budget. 

Town meeting takes place at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23 at the Chilmark Community Center, with a quorum of 25 people. Moderator Janet Weidner presides.

Perhaps the most contentious discussion of the meeting will happen towards the end when voters take up article 32, a petition to establish a town committee to manage tennis programing, removing the town courts from the jurisdiction of the nonprofit Chilmark Town Affairs Council.

An article at the town meeting could alter the current governance of the Chilmark tennis courts. — Ray Ewing

The article, drafted by the nonprofit Friends and Associates of Chilmark Tennis, received more than 120 signatures from town residents, and also proposes establishing a revolving fund for the new program that would be paid for through tennis fees. 

Members of the friends group emphasize a need for transparency and independence in the management of the tennis program, as well as a focus on the needs of year-round players, however some officials have expressed concerns about how the bylaw could impact town hall operations. 

According to Jay Grossman, one of the founders of the friends group, the petition emerged out of longstanding disagreements between the tennis community and the town affairs council, which operates the Chilmark summer camp that includes tennis programming. 

“The will of the community is clear, and the organization that’s charged with running the community center is not listening to the will of the community. It’s that simple,” Mr. Grossman said, in an interview with the Gazette. 

Conflict between the two groups has been developing for years now, with town affairs council executive director Suellen Lazarus saying that “disrespectful” behavior from the tennis pro and others involved in the tennis program contributed to the departure of summer camp executive director Kiera Lapsley, who was hired in 2022. 

Mr. Grossman disputed this claim. In a joint address to the town affairs council and co-signed by 166 people, posted on the friends group website, members of tennis community wrote in favor of renewing the contract of longtime tennis pro Eddie Stahl.

“Through petitions, letters, emails, fundraisers and tributes, the tennis playing community has been outspoken in its support of Eddie Stahl,” the letter wrote. “We are troubled and disheartened that the governing board convened to represent our interests refuses to hear our voices and act in our best interest.”

Ms. Lazarus agreed that much of the debate has included Mr. Stahl.

“I think a lot of it has to do with who we hire as our [tennis] pro,” she said. 

Mr. Grossman said that efforts to negotiate with the town affairs council have been unsuccessful.

“We have reached out on eight or nine different occasions to create cooperation, collaboration, dialogue, potential mediation, if necessary, and at every turn, we have been rejected,” Mr. Grossman said. “Probably the biggest fault is that if you’re running a community center and not listening to the needs of the community.”

The town affairs council was founded in 1956 to manage the programming and operations of the community center. During the summer, Ms. Lazarus said, its summer camp incorporates tennis for around seven weeks as part of their program, while opening up the courts to use for free in the off-season. 

“The program is all about instilling in kids a lifelong love of tennis, and we do this from their earliest age,” she said. 

The proposed new tennis bylaw, Ms. Lazarus said, could jeopardize that program by splitting jurisdiction of the courts and community center. 

“It’s not in our interests. It’s not in the town’s interest. It’s not even the tennis players’ interests,” she said. “We think it is not a good idea for anyone.”

One major goal for the friends group, Mr. Grossman said, is to shift the focus of the courts to the year-round community, which he said has grown in Chilmark after the pandemic.

“It’s not the year-rounders who are in the driver’s seat at the moment, and this would help change that,” he said. 

The bylaw proposes the creation of an independent town tennis committee, with two members appointed by the select board and a third appointed by the Up-Island Regional School Committee.

Funding for the tennis programs, Mr. Grossman said, would come from fees paid for by participants. 

Outside of the two groups vying for control of the courts, however, some officials have raised concerns about unintended consequences the bylaw could have for town operations. At a select board meeting on April 16, board member Bill Rossi spoke strongly against the petition. 

“I just think it’s a bad idea, at the end of the day,” Mr. Rossi said. “This would affect the town hall staff more than anybody.”

Board member Marie Larsen agreed.

“It’s a terrible idea for the town, in my opinion,” she said. “It’s just wrong for the town in so many ways. 

Though town administrator Tim Carroll declined to give his opinion on the political aspects of the proposal, he said that the bylaw raises “a lot of unanswered questions,” when it comes to how it will mesh with municipal personnel and finance laws, since the bylaw would create new town employees.

“I don’t know if their proposals will survive impact with those two laws, or other laws,” he said. “There would be a lot of process issues that we’d have to work through.”

But before voters get to have their say on the tennis issue, Mr. Carroll said, town meeting will move through more conventional town business, including a $14.4 million budget, a 6.5 per cent increase from last year.

Much of the budgetary increase, Mr. Carroll said, comes as the town begins to pay off debt from recent capital projects. 

“The big picture in this budget is that we’ve got the [$12 million] debt service for the fire station and the EMT building and $3 million for the Chilmark school,” he said. 

Town residents will not vote on a budget override for the increase, after having voted to allow a debt exclusion during a previous town meeting. 

Voters will also take up a series of funding articles, including $281,000 for town stabilization funds and $30,000 to improve accessibility at the Menemsha town beach, along with deciding whether to increase the town short-term rental tax from 4 to 6 per cent. 

Town meeting convenes at 7 p.m. at the Chilmark Community Center on Tuesday, April 23.