Fighting for a fifth term on the town's top board, West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell assured voters this week that her door is always open even as she apologized to them for keeping the door shut when it came to the recent controversy around Steamship Authority politics.
"Selectmen worked at a distance, and we got way too far ahead of the voters. That was a huge mistake," she said at a candidates' forum Tuesday night at the Howes House. "That distance is not defensible. I would commit to going forward with something more informed."
The promises and apologies came just a week before West Tisbury voters head to the polls to vote in a contest that has been building up steam since February, when challenger Glenn Hearn launched his campaign and openly criticized Mrs. Mitchell's role in efforts to undo the county commissioners' appointment of Kathryn A. Roessel as the Vineyard member of the SSA governing board.
Political signs now dot West Tisbury roadsides. The forum pulled in well over 70 voters, who quickly overflowed the seating capacity of the two main rooms.
From the start, Mrs. Mitchell made no attempt to dodge the SSA issue, citing it immediately as the "pivotal" question in the election. But the forum did not become a stage for talking about excursion rates or freight service from New Bedford. Rather, it became clear Tuesday that the larger issue cuts to the core of small-town democracy .
Both candidates, while talking about rising tax rates and the need to stay in the Up-Island Regional School District, returned frequently to the basic theme of listening to the voters.
"West Tisbury needs to be more inclusive," said Mr. Hearn in his opening remarks. "We do ourselves a disservice by not involving more people. We need more public hearings on Steamship, the up-Island region and the hospital.
"Before selectmen take action, they need to listen to voter opinion," he said.
His comments were aimed right at the incumbent, Mrs. Mitchell, who later spent several minutes explaining how her involvement in SSA politics played out. It began, she said, with an invitation from former SSA governor Ron Rappaport to join a committee dealing with issues in Falmouth and New Bedford.
Later, after Riggs Parker became the Vineyard's SSA governor, Mrs. Mitchell said, she and the majority of Island selectmen warmed to the idea of using New Bedford as a seasonal port. Last December, a controversy erupted when Dukes County commissioners voted not to re-appoint Mr. Parker.
"I was angry and stunned at the commissioners' decision to remove Riggs," she said. Mrs. Mitchell acknowledged supporting a legislative amendment that would have changed the way SSA governors are appointed, a move that would have reversed Ms. Roessel's appointment.
But Mrs. Mitchell denied being the ringleader of such efforts. "It's not true that I drafted or helped draft the amendment," she said. "It's not true that I led efforts to peddle the amendment in the back corridors of the State House."
But Mrs. Mitchell admitted that she failed to ask voters what they thought. "It was a mistake to be that out of touch," she said.
Taking one step further, Mrs. Mitchell also said, "Much has been made of my and John Early's public scolding of John Alley," who is one of the county commissioners who voted for Ms. Roessel.
"I regret it, and I have personally apologized to John and he accepted," she said.
But two other voters at the forum, Marjory Potts and William Stewart, quetioned Mrs. Mitchell's support for action that would have overturned Ms. Roessel's appointment.
"The Dukes County commission acted within its legal authority," said Mr. Stewart. "It seems to me inappropriate for you to sign on to a motion that should be retroactive."
Again, Mrs. Mitchell said that in the aftermath of her support for the amendment, voters have shared their displeasure. "There's a reluctance to see someone duly appointed interrupt a term," she said. "I have heard that."
Both candidates vowed to include more voters in the budget process. Mr. Hearn called for forming a committee of residents made of retired business executives.
Mrs. Mitchell said "We have not done a good job of setting fiscal goals with residents." She added that she would explore ways to ease the tax burden for residents of moderate financial means.
"There are people with not a lot of money whose taxes have increased dramatically," she said. "We need to explore opportunities for relief for people."
In pitching her candidacy, Mrs. Mitchell focused on her work as chairman of the Dukes County Health Council, which is about to begin its Islandwide health insurance plan, and her 18 years as town treasurer. "My plan is to rely on my record," she said.
Mr. Hearn, who is about to retire after six years working as a math tutor at the regional high school, described how he moved to the Island as a boy and then went back to the mainland to pursue a career as an electrical engineer.
"I delivered systems on time and within budget," he said. When he moved back to the Island, he became clerk of the works for the community project to build the new Agricultural Hall.
Three years ago, Mr. Hearn proved his political mettle, running for the Land Bank Commission and edging out incumbent Sherman Goldstein by just 15 votes. Mr. Hearn is running unopposed for another term with the Land Bank board.
"There's no way I would have all the inside knowledge of the incumbent," said Mr. Hearn. "But it's time for some different ideas here."
The challenger also pointed to his own record, citing the $100,000 in grants he raised at the high school to help start an aquaculture program. Mr. Hearn said he was ready devote himself full-time to the job of selectman.
"Give me a chance to make a difference," he said.
Mrs. Mitchell asked voters not only to judge her by her record but also by the company she keeps, a thin reference to newspaper ads in which residents and some town officials, including planning board members Kate Warner and Virginia Jones, have pledged their support for the incumbent.
In closing remarks, Mrs. Mitchell touched on the open-door policy that has marked her tenure. "Half the people have come into my office with a comment or an idea," she said. "That's the most important part for me, turning your ideas into action."
The only other contested race in town is for the position of library trustee. Three people are running for two open seats. Incumbent Hermine Hull was joined at the front table by other contenders, George Hough 3rd and Linda Hearn. They couldn't find a thing to disagree about, each one acknowledging a shared goal to keep a cherished town library in good shape.
Voters will also be asked to affirm any override questions they approved at town meeting. Two of the four questions ask for extra money for the schools, $335,568 for the Up-Island Regional School District and $72,215 for the high school. The other two override questions ask voters to approve spending $10,000 for a feasibility study for an addition to the town library and $45,000 for the town's share of ambulance purchase for Tri-Town Ambulance Service.
Polls will be open at the public safety building from noon to 8 p.m.