Effective Leadership

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of January, 1983:

Most Island boards get the job done, but few do it with the economy of the Oak Bluffs selectmen, who conduct town business with little wasted motion. While some other town meetings grind along, Oak Bluffs business is dispatched with efficiency. Perhaps it is the no-nonsense legacy of Oak Bluffs politics that leaves little room for personal vendettas, big mouths or interests other than those of the town. Those who have challenged the town’s tradition of temperance with splashy finger-pointing usually have enjoyed short-lived political careers.

“The people in this town are politically astute. They do their homework,” says Edmond G. Coogan, a selectman for three years. “They have more of a gut feeling for politics the way it should be. ”History, at least the history contained in Gazette files, bears witness to a tradition of orderly, if unexciting, town meetings “Oak Bluffs Has brisk and Businesslike Session” (1960), “Quiet and Brief Meeting” (1966), Typical Quietude Marks Oak Bluffs Meeting” (1968) are just a few of the headlines chronicling meetings.

But don’t think there hasn’t been some hollering down through the years. Chairman Richard W. Blankenship chuckles when he recalls one of his predecessors jumping off the stage during a town meeting, taking off his jacket and threatening violence when a voter became belligerent. Selectman Anthony (Tubby) Rebello even quit as selectman in 1973, saying nobody should have to take the guff dished out by one local newspaper, and within the same year, two other selectmen resigned

But no one holds grudges for past and present political alliances. There’s no name calling, no bickering, no power plays. They get along. “We get along because we try to get along. People in Oak Bluffs expect you to get along. It’s the unwritten rule,” says Mr. Coogan. “People don’t want to come into that room and see you fighting and challenging each other.” And the people are watching. Oak Bluffs weekly selectmen’s meetings are better attended than any other regular meeting on the Island. “I’ve never left a meeting mad at anybody and I don’t know anyone who’s ever left mad. We might disagree on something in there but then 10 minutes later we’re down having a beer,” says Mr. Blankenship.

But all this tradition won’t make selectmen buddies if they don’t want to be buddies. The success of the Oak Bluffs board can be attributed to good karma as much as anything. Here are three men who genuinely like each other, respect each other and share a vision of how good Oak Bluffs is, but also how much better it could be. And they know that quibbling over the price of dump stickers, or whether the highway department needs a half-ton or three-quarter-ton pickup is not the way to move forward.

Personally, the three leaders have little in common. They don’t travel in the same social circles or share the same political orientation. Mr. Coogan, 39, is the newcomer to Oak Bluffs politics. He is a former teacher at the regional high school and is studying for his law degree. He is the liberal of the board; some even call him a radical. He publicly questions people and institutions that were previously unchallenged.

Mr. Rebello, 48, was born in Oak Bluffs. He worked in the Oak Bluffs post office for 14 years, then began a career as a successful businessman restaurateur and politician. He is a conservative Democrat, interested in making the town financially secure, building its business base before creating more tax-exempt open space and parkland. Mr. Blankenship, 66, is the moderate of the board. A former Oak Bluffs police chief, he is now retired and spends most of his day in town hall handling some of the small crises that arise. Such attention to daily problems is part of the reason things go smoothly Mr. Blankenship admits. “The door’s always open. A lot of things are solved in here with people who might come to the meeting and be belligerent,” he says. But as with most things that seem too good to be true, there is a flip side to this sunny tale of cooperation and mutual respect. The most popular complaint among those who attend meetings or serve on town boards is that much of the selectmen’s deliberations go on before the meetings, creating an illusion of unity in public. While selectmen do not make decisions in private, many of their concerns about controversial subjects are hashed out behind closed doors. “Yeah, we discuss these things before the meeting,” Mr. Coogan says. In a meeting it’s not constructive “to spend a lot of time exciting people in a situation where you can’t think straight.” But even though “we talk about these things before, I don’t know how Ed and Tubby are going to vote until we get out there,” Mr. Blankenship says.

Some also say the board has yet to face a real clash or genuine philosophical conflict. The Girl Scout Camp acquisition may turn April’s town meeting into a donnybrook from which the selectmen, who are divided on the issue, may not recover. It will be difficult for whomever loses to simply smile and shrug and have a beer 10 minutes later.

Compiled by Eulalie Regan