Public confidence in the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, eroding for years, reached a low ebb this week with officials in four of the six Island towns calling for the commission to account for a ten per cent spending increase.
Already facing widespread criticism for its protracted hearings on the Stop & Shop expansion in Vineyard Haven and the conduct of its review of a proposed bowling alley in Oak Bluffs, the commission has now come under scrutiny for its budget at selectmen’s meetings in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs and Tisbury. The strongest condemnation came from a surprising source: the Chilmark finance committee, which voted not to recommend the budget to town meeting, saying the commission and its presentation of its numbers showed “a lack of clear management, focus and prioritization.”
Leaving aside the fact that towns lack the legal authority to reject the MVC’s budget, with those three words — management, focus and prioritization — the Chilmark finance committee has delivered a crisp if damning diagnosis of what’s ailing the commission.
Created forty years ago this summer by an act of the state legislature, the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has an intentionally broad mandate that includes balancing the economic vitality of the Island with the need to protect its natural resources and unique character. To make sure it truly represented the whole Island, the commission ended up with twenty one members, including nine elected at large and one appointed member from each town.
It’s always a danger in an organization with a vast scope and many chiefs for goals and priorities to get muddled. And it is difficult for any organization to make even its well-honed priorities understood by a public with limited patience and a short attention span. That’s why leadership is needed, to get ahead of the doubters and remind Islanders in a compelling way why the commission was formed, what its purview is and what’s at stake.
The Stop & Shop hearings have dragged on for months without resolution of what may be the single most important issue — traffic impacts on the critical bottleneck at the Five Corners intersection. In Oak Bluffs, the tenor of the commission’s questions about the bowling alley have led some to believe that the commission, against all actual evidence, is anti-business.
Mr. London told the Gazette this week that the MVC wasn’t invited early this year, as it usually is in December or January, to present its budget to town officials. Knowing the budget was up ten per cent, the commission might reasonably have pre-empted some criticism by asking for an audience itself.
A Harris Poll conducted by the Gazette last summer found ninety four per cent of seasonal and full-time residents of the Vineyard believe preserving the character of the Island is an important objective of the MVC. At the same time, only 23 per cent have a great deal of confidence in the regional commission’s ability to carry out its mission, and seventeen per cent have hardly any confidence at all.
There are some who say that the commission itself is unnecessary, a redundant and intrusive layer of government. We strongly disagree. It is precisely because of its importance to preserving what we love about the Vineyard that it needs to take stock and fast — to figure out why the tide of public sentiment is turning against it and how to counter that perception.
This editorial has been changed to clarify a comment made by Mr. London in an interview with the Gazette this week about what he described as a usual process — when the MVC is invited early by the towns to present its budget in December or January.