In a move that sets the stage for the town of Oak Bluffs to break ranks with the controversial Boston Big Game Fishing Club Monster Shark Tournament, a divided board of selectmen on Tuesday voted to deny a one-day liquor license for shark tournaments.
Following the vote, tournament organizer Steven James said the town’s action provides grounds for a lawsuit. He accused selectmen of discriminating against the popular fishing tournament and fishermen in general.
“They have specifically enacted a policy that calls out shark tournaments and fishermen. It’s a clear-cut case of discrimination,” Mr. James said. “If they want to play hardball then I’m ready to go to bat. They have no right to create a policy that specifically targets a certain class [of people].”
In past years, selectmen have granted a beer and wine license to the shark tournament for the Captain’s Banquet on Thursday afternoon and the closing ceremony on Sunday evening, which are held under a large tent built on the town-owned Sunset Park. But some selectmen have complained that tournament organizers routinely wait until the last minute to submit their application for the liquor license when plans for the event are already finalized, essentially giving the board no other choice but to vote for approval.
Chairman Ron DiOrio noted that tournament officials have yet to apply for a beer and wine license this year, but said the new policy would protect the sanctity of the board’s decision-making process.
“What is happening is we are getting this request late in the process,” Mr. DiOrio said. “We are stampeded into [approving these licenses.]”
Selectmen voted 3-2 to approve the new policy, which amounts to a ban on liquor licenses for future shark tournaments. Kerry Scott and Roger Wey joined Mr. DiOrio in voting to support the ban, while Duncan Ross and Gregory Coogan cast the dissenting votes. Both Mr. Coogan and Mr. Ross cited a vote at the 2007 annual town meeting in which a majority of voters endorsed a non-binding ballot question asking if the town should continue to allow the use of town property for shark tournaments.
“We’ve spent so many hours on this subject that it’s reached the point of being ridiculous,” Mr. Coogan said. “I personally don’t care about the shark tournament, but I know there are a lot of people who do. And the town has already voted for this.”
Kerry Scott, a vocal opponent of tournament in the past, said the town was under no obligation to continue to provide space for the tournament.
“Everyone knows how I feel about the shark tournament. I think Steve James [and the shark tournament] has been treated very well by this town. We have made it possible for Steve James to make one heck of a good living from this event, and we don’t get a whole lot back,” Ms. Scott said.
Mr. James sent a letter to the parks and recreation commission on May 6 requesting permission to use Washington Park between the harbor and Chapman avenue to build the banquet tent with a capacity of 900 people between July 17 and 19. In previous years, the banquet hall was located at Sunset Park across the street from the harbor.
This year, however, Mr. James has asked that Sunset Park be used for parking for support vehicles during the event as well as spectator parking during the weigh-station operation on Friday and Saturday afternoon.
At Tuesday’s selectmen meetings, several abutters to Washington Park argued that the area was too small for 900-person capacity tent.
“It was bad enough in previous years when that tent was over at Sunset Park — it was like being next to a carnival,” said Chapman avenue resident Kathleen Cowley. “I can’t imagine how this could ever fit into Washington Park. We wait all winter long to enjoy our tiny little ocean view for a few weeks of the summer, and now we may have to look at the side of a tent for a week.”
The use of town-owned parks for profit-making operations has been a hot topic in recent months. In March, a national company proposed an expanded concert in August at Ocean Park featuring the Boston Pops, which prompted selectmen to ask town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport to research several legal questions about the use of town-owned lands for profit-making operations.
Mr. Rappaport found, among other things, an applicant must demonstrate a clear public benefit to justify using town-owned lands for such events. But the town counsel also concluded that in absence of a clear definition of the term obvious public purpose, the selectmen and park commission has some discretion as to what can be held on town-owned property.
Richard Combra Jr., chairman of the parks commission, told selectmen Tuesday the commission has yet to discuss the request to use Washington Park for the tournament. He said the commission was slated to discuss the matter at their next regular meeting Monday, but pledged the commission would not take a vote until a future date.
Mr. Combra said the parks commission would hold a public hearing on the Washington Park proposal that would be held in a larger venue like the senior center or library to accommodate what is expected to be a larger crowd.
When told about the mounting legal questions and concerns about the use of Washington Park, Mr. James was defiant and described them as another way to discriminate against his event and sport fishermen. He accused the selectmen of folding to the pressures of the Humane Society of the United States, which in recent years has targeted the town and the shark tournament.
Several years ago, after ESPN began to broadcast the event, the humane society launched an aggressive campaign to oppose the shark tournament, placing graphic advertisements in Island newspapers and on its Web site and encouraging protesters to personally contact town officials to air their concerns.
Mr. James, who has adamantly criticized the humane society for its tactics, said selectmen are getting swept up in a wave of rampant political correctness and kowtowing to a group with no interest in helping either sharks or the town.
“The selectmen are just getting swept in this whole sport fishing jihad. I hope people understand these tree-huggers care nothing about Oak Bluffs; they don’t care about the businesses, they don’t care about the people who enjoy this event each year, and they don’t care about the residents who voted to support [the tournament.] What they care about is getting their names in the paper and generating publicity,” he said.
When pressed as to whether he indeed planned to file a lawsuit against the town, Mr. James was elusive. He did state with confidence, however, that the shark tournament will take place this year as planned and would continue for many years to come. He noted that he would have no problems moving the banquet tent to a private property, as he has done in the past, or in a worse case scenario to another Island town, although his preference is to remain in Oak Bluffs.
He also said continued attempts to stop the event will only serve to strengthen his resolve.
“I’m not going anywhere, and neither is this tournament. I will continue to hold this event until I’m 70 years old. I might start holding three of these tournaments each summer; who’s gonna stop me? Remember the town of Oak Bluffs does not control the federal waterways — it’s my right to hold this tournament where I want,” he said, adding:
“I’m not about to let the Humane Society think they pushed me out.”
John Grandy, a biologist and vice president for the humane society, said yesterday the selectmen’s decision was a small victory in a much larger battle.
“I know this doesn’t mean the tournament will go away, but I think it does demonstrate that people’s opinions about the senseless and barbaric slaughter of these sharks in the name of sport is starting to change,” he said.