Against the backdrop of a heated race for Massachusetts governor and a slew of ballot initiatives on everything from bilingual education to income tax, voters on Martha's Vineyard will face their own subset of important electoral decisions on the first Tuesday in November this year.
The key local issues that will appear on the state ballot include the biennial election of the Martha's Vineyard Commission, and a ballot referendum question that could wreak fresh havoc on the Steamship Authority board of governors by altering the way the Vineyard governor is appointed. And the race for the Dukes County Commission - ordinarily a humdrum election that generates little interest - has the potential this year to create real change in a political landscape that has long been populated by an old-boy network.
The results of the election are expected to have far-reaching consequences for the Vineyard and its end game with growth and development.
"The stakes are higher than they have been," said Richard Knabel, a West Tisbury resident who recently helped to spearhead the formation of a political action committee (PAC), the first of its kind on the Vineyard. Called the Citizens for the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the goal of the PAC is to raise money, and also awareness, about the upcoming election and the local races, especially the MVC race. The president of the PAC is Barbara Day, also of West Tisbury.
"This election is to some extent a referendum," said Mr. Knabel, a veteran grass-roots political activist who years ago was at the center of efforts in New York to clean up the Hudson River.
"We're hearing a lot of frustration from people not just about the golf course, but about the larger role of the Martha's Vineyard Commission. We want a strong Martha's Vineyard Commission to do what the enabling legislation wants it to do," said Mrs. Day, who headed up Glenn Hearn's successful campaign to unseat longtime West Tisbury selectman Cynthia Mitchell last spring.
The surprise upset in the selectman's race was seen in many quarters as a clear statement from voters who were troubled at the climate of back-room politics surrounding the Steamship Authority issues late last year.
Since then back-room politics have persisted, especially in the town of Oak Bluffs, where four of the five selectmen have aligned themselves with the controversial developers of the Down Island Golf Club. "The parochial approach being advanced by the four selectmen in Oak Bluffs strikes many of us as appalling," said Mr. Knabel. "I have not seen such bare-knuckled tactics in 30 years in the political system," he added.
The field of candidates for the Martha's Vineyard Commission this year includes three candidates from Edgartown, four from West Tisbury, two from Aquinnah and one each from Chilmark, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. Absent any strong write-in candidates, this means that the election will yield two members from West Tisbury, Aquinnah and Edgartown and one each from the other three towns.
Established by an act of the state legislature in 1974, the MVC is vested with unique regulatory powers to protect the ecological, cultural and archaeological resources of the Vineyard. Nine of the 21 members of the commission are elected at large every two years; the remaining members are appointed by the towns, the county commission and the state governor.
In the at-large election, at least one and not more than two members of the commission may be elected from each of the six Vineyard towns.
For voters the choice will be clear when they cast ballots for the MVC: The people of the Vineyard will have an opportunity to elect candidates who favor conservation and the core mission of the regional land use agency, or they may choose to elect candidates who favor more growth and over the years have been openly at odds with the commission's environmental protection ethic.
"We're behind the commission and behind elected officials who think in terms of the commission as a regional organization and who see the value of the Island as a region," said Mrs. Day.
The candidates for the MVC are as follows: Edgartown, James Athearn, Christina Brown and Ronald Monterosso; Oak Bluffs, Richard Toole; Tisbury, John Best; Chilmark, E. Douglas Sederholm; Aquinnah, Deborah Moore and Megan Ottens-Sargent; West Tisbury, Paul Adler, Robert Mone, Linda Sibley and Andrew Woodruff.
In the aftermath of the September primary, the race for the Dukes County Commission now includes six candidates for four seats. There are seven county commissioners, four of whom are up for reelection this year, including Leslie Leland of West Tisbury, Daniel Flynn of Oak Bluffs, E.B. Collins of Edgartown and Robert Sawyer of Tisbury. Mr. Leland, Mr. Flynn and Mr. Sawyer are all seeking reelection, while Mr. Collins is not. Also running for seats are Nelson Smith of Edgartown, Paul Strauss of Oak Bluffs and Woodrow Williams of Vineyard Haven. Mr. Williams ran as a write-in candidate on the Republican ticket in the primary and earned enough votes to have his name placed on the ballot.
The field is somewhat confusing because two of the candidates are from Oak Bluffs but only one can be elected because of a rule that limits the county commission to two candidates from any one town (commissioner Roger Wey of Oak Bluffs does not face reelection this year).
Translation: Mr. Strauss and Mr. Flynn will compete directly for one seat on the county commission.
Vineyard voters will face an important decision in question four on the ballot, a proposal to change the way the Vineyard Steamship Authority governor is appointed. On the face of it, the question appears innocuous enough: Should a special committee made up of one selectman from each town and one member of the county commission be established to appoint the Vineyard boat line governor?
In fact, the question is rooted in the hostile politics surrounding the Steamship Authority last year; the referendum language was written by former New Bedford city solicitor George Leontire. For 40 years the Vineyard boat line member has been appointed by the county commission. But Mr. Leontire was unhappy after the county commission voted 4-3 last December to replace former boat line governor J.B. Riggs Parker with Kathryn A. Roessel.
Mr. Parker has more support among Vineyard selectmen than he does on the county commission, and if voters approve the change, he is hoping to regain his position of power on the Steamship Authority board. The referendum question was added to the recent bill to restructure the boat line that was adopted by the state legislature.
Before the bill was passed, Cape and Islands Sen. Robert O'Leary tried without success to strip the referendum language from the bill.
"This is not just about getting a seat on the board. It's about getting control of the board. I don't think any of you would tolerate legislation in which one community imposes a referendum on another community," Mr. O'Leary said at the time.
The question is binding, and now it will be up to a simple majority of Vineyard voters to decide.
The state election is Nov. 5. The Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters will sponsor a candidates' forum at the Oak Bluffs School cafeteria beginning at 7 p.m. on Oct. 29.
Gazette reporter Chris Burrell contributed to this story.