MVC Shows Support for Veteran Member, Rejecting Bias Charges

Gazette Senior Writer

In an unqualified show of confidence for one of its own members who has been under relentless attack by the developers of the Down Island Golf Club, the Martha's Vineyard Commission voted without dissent last night that commission member Linda Sibley is free from bias and prejudice.

"I don't believe there is anybody on this board that does more homework and takes her job more seriously than Linda. For her to be accused of being a bigot is laughable," said commission member Richard Toole.

"Linda has intellect and judgment - the biases she is accused of, the bigotry she is accused of - I can't fathom," said commission member John Best.

"She is as objective as anybody can be," said commission member Paul Strauss.

"Both hands?" smiled commission member Jennie Green, as 14 hands went up around the room in support of Mrs. Sibley.

"I think that resolves the matter," concluded Eric Wodlinger, the commission's longtime Boston attorney.

The comments came during an unusual meeting last night that was turned into a quasi-judicial proceeding under the direction of Mr. Wodlinger. The meeting was aimed at ending an ugly smear campaign that has been waged against Mrs. Sibley by the developers of the Down Island Golf Club.

Begun last year, the smear campaign was resurrected several weeks ago when Brian Lafferty, a partner with developer Corey Kupersmith, called Mrs. Sibley a bigot.

Mr. Lafferty said he would go to court to challenge Mrs. Sibley's right to review a huge affordable housing project now planned for Mr. Kupersmith's property in the southern woodlands of Oak Bluffs.

The housing project is under review by the commission as a development of regional impact (DRI). A public hearing on the project was closed two weeks ago and the written record on the project closed yesterday. The commission land use planning subcommittee will begin deliberations on the project on Sept. 29.

Meanwhile, last night the commission took steps to clear up a blizzard of allegations that have been unleashed by Mr. Lafferty in recent weeks.

Central among them are the allegations that Mrs. Sibley is biased because of remarks she made three years ago during a series of public hearings on the first of three golf club proposals for Mr. Kupersmith's property. The golf club projects were ultimately rejected by the commission.

During discussions about whether Mr. Kupersmith would permit corporate memberships at the golf club, Mrs. Sibley made reference to Japanese golfers.

Mr. Kupersmith and Mr. Lafferty later dredged up the remarks and have used them repeatedly in a wide array of political arenas over the last year.

Mr. Lafferty has also accused several other members of the commission of having conflicts of interest.

Ethics complaints are confidential.

But last night Mr. Wodlinger said it was time to put the claims to the test, especially the claim of bias and prejudice against Mrs. Sibley.

"These charges go to the integrity of the process, and the Martha's Vineyard Commission has a duty to safeguard the integrity of its proceedings," Mr. Wodlinger told the commission executive committee before the regular meeting last night.

A public hearing was postponed and the commission agenda was cleared to address the sole subject of Mr. Lafferty's allegations.

Mr. Lafferty did not attend.

At the outset commission chairman James Athearn turned the meeting over to Mr. Wodlinger, who then conducted the session with a solemn tone, reciting the allegations that had been made against Mrs. Sibley and reading the excerpted quotes taken from transcripts of the public hearings.

Mr. Wodlinger said Mr. Lafferty had been asked to provide more evidence to support his claims, but to date no evidence had surfaced beyond two video clips.

The commission attorney then turned to Mrs. Sibley and invited her to speak on her own behalf.

"I feel totally confident that I have no bias or prejudice and I choose to not recuse myself," Mrs. Sibley said. She also submitted a written statement.

Mr. Wodlinger then turned to the members of the commission.

"You are the sole judges of fact and and let me also say that a commissioner is not expected to be a blank slate - I doubt that any of you would be elected on a platform of no opinions. The question is, regardless of one's opinions … whether Mrs. Sibley is disabled by bias and prejudice from giving one applicant a fair hearing," Mr. Wodlinger said.

Commission member Christina Brown moved that Mrs. Sibley is without bias and prejudice.

No one disagreed.

"I have been a trial attorney all my adult life - I have reviewed all the facts and also Mrs. Sibley's response and it's my opinion that Mr. Lafferty's allegations are utterly without merit. This is not even a close call," said commission member Doug Sederholm. "It's quite obvious that Mr. Lafferty has taken these comments out of context," he added.

"After a year of some pretty nasty allegations, it's way overdue that this commission finally deals with this. I'm just glad that this is taking place," said commission member Andrew Woodruff after the vote.

"It's been very difficult," agreed commission member Tristan Israel.

Later in the meeting Mr. Wodlinger also rebuffed a number of other allegations that have spilled out from Mr. Lafferty along the way, including:

* A claim that the commission had spent $10,000 to file an amicus brief in a superior court case involving an affordable housing developer and the Dennis historic district commission. In fact Mr. Wodlinger said, the commission spent a little over $2,000 investigating the case and in the end decided not to file an amicus brief.

* A claim that Mr. Israel has a conflict of interest because his son is a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). Mr. Lafferty made a passing reference to a discussion that had purportedly taken place between the tribe and the developers, but Mr. Wodlinger said there is no evidence that any such discussion actually took place.

* A claim that commission chairman James Athearn had a conflict because he had done some work for the owners of Vineyard Acres II - now the site of the Vineyard Golf Club. In his own brief statement last night, Mr. Athearn said he had never done work for either Vineyard Acres II or the golf club. He said a few years ago, when the property was vacant and had become a dumping ground, he had asked the owner for permission to remove a large fiberglass tank from the property. Mr. Athearn said the tank had been used as a target practice and was pockmarked with bullet holes. He said permission was granted and he and his son went to the property, loaded it into their truck and took it back to their home, which is Morning Glory Farm. "We sawed it in half with a chainsaw and turned it into a nice little quonset hut for our pigs," Mr. Athearn said.

Mr. Wodlinger said Mr. Athearn's pig house did not constitute a conflict of interest.