More than three months after the Vineyard Gazette formally asked for public records from the town of Tisbury relating to the Stop & Shop expansion proposal, the town has provided only a portion of what the newspaper requested.
The request for public records was made in a letter signed by Gazette publisher Jane Seagrave and sent on April 2 to town administrator John (Jay) Grande. The request included emails and other correspondence between the town and Stop & Shop as well as minutes of meetings where the supermarket grocery expansion plans were discussed. Specific time periods were included in the request.
To date, despite repeated follow-up requests, the town has provided no minutes of selectmen’s meetings, either in open or executive session, between Jan. 1, 2014 and April 1, 2014. No reason has been given for not providing the minutes. Although the town’s website has a link for board of selectmen minutes, no minutes are posted on the site.
The town provided some emails and other correspondence in response to the Gazette’s query, and they offer a window into the private interplay between the grocery chain and town officials while formal public hearings on the project were being held before the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Among other things, the emails show a running conversation that was taking place behind the scenes at the time, primarily among Mr. Grande, Geoghan Coogan, a lawyer and former Tisbury selectman who represented Stop & Shop, and Jeffrey Kristal, who was chairman of the selectmen. Mr. Kristal did not seek re-election this year and is no longer a selectman.
For example, the emails provided disclose that Tisbury selectmen at one time sought more than $1.6 million in mitigation funds from Stop & Shop. The Gazette has been unable to obtain any records of discussions that led to that figure.
Stop & Shop had been seeking approval from the MVC to substantially expand its Vineyard Haven store when it abruptly withdrew its application on May 8, hours before the written record on the proposal was to be closed. Stop & Shop has not come back with a new proposal.
The withdrawal put a sudden end to a protracted 10-month review process which was complicated by a variety of issues, including a lack of common understanding about the roles of the town of Tisbury and the commission in negotiating and approving the project.
The MVC had clearly delegated to the town the responsibility for recommending a design for the town parking lot adjacent to the grocery store, and in March a special parking lot advisory group appointed by the Tisbury selectmen formally recommended a plan to reconfigure the lot with 64 parking spaces and three two-way parking lanes.
But days later it became clear that the Tisbury selectmen had been discussing a much broader financial agreement with Stop & Shop behind closed doors. Mr. Coogan told the MVC in mid-March that he had received a letter “out of the blue” from the town that he said could force Stop & Shop to reconsider the entire project, but he would not disclose what was in it.
Emails obtained by the Gazette show that the selectmen, evidently following a closed-door meeting with Stop & Shop officials the night before, had suggested on March 12 that the grocery chain pay the town more than $1.6 million.
Based on the date of the email, this appears to be the letter Mr. Coogan was referring to.
“At the present time, the offers exchanged between Stop & Shop and Martha’s Vineyard Commission are not benefiting Tisbury to the extent practicable as presently structure(d). Tisbury will bear a 100 per cent of the project impacts,” wrote Mr. Grande in an email to Mr. Coogan, which also copied Mr. Kristal, selectmen Tristan Israel and Jonathan Snyder, and David Doneski, an attorney for the town.
“Just so I’m clear, you are looking for: $30,000/year in maintenance contributions; $1.6 million dollar contribution; S&S to pay for all of the lot reconfiguration work. Do I have that right?” Mr. Coogan wrote back.
“Yes, in general,” Mr. Grande replied. “But want to clarify the following. In addition to the financial commitment of $30,000 per year for maintenance, Stop & Shop would also provide maintenance services ongoing, such as landscaping, litter control, snowplowing and pavement striping/markings. In addition, Stop & Shop will provide a $50,000 contribution to the [town affordable ] Housing Trust annually.”
There is no correspondence for five days, then a flurry of brief emails about scheduling a meeting. On March 18, a formal letter from Mr. Coogan to the Tisbury selectmen offers a “counter-proposal” offering about $1 million in one-time and ongoing mitigation donations.
Because none of these discussions had been disclosed publicly at the time, members of the public and the MVC were caught by surprise when on April 1, the Tisbury selectmen emerged from executive session to announce that Stop & Shop had agreed to pay a total of $1.165 million to the town through a combination of one-time and long-term cash donations for a range of purposes, including mitigating traffic congestion, providing affordable housing and renovating the town comfort station. Under the draft agreement, the town pledged to support the Stop & Shop proposal before the MVC.
Ultimately, the draft agreement was not signed. At a final hearing on the project before the MVC in May, two out of three selectmen and the planning board spoke in opposition to the expansion plan, and the grocery chain subsequently withdrew its proposal.
To better understand what had transpired out of the public eye, the Gazette filed its formal request with the town under the Massachusetts Public Records Law to gain access to written communications, including emails, between Stop & Shop and town officials, minutes and notes of the parking lot subcommittee, and minutes and notes of selectmen’s meetings where the Stop & Shop project was discussed. Under the law, public records are to be provided within 10 days.
After several letters to Mr. Grande, the Gazette received minutes of the parking lot committee on May 13, and two batches of emails, one on May 16 and one on May 21. Minutes of the selectmen’s meetings have not been provided, and neither the town administrator nor Mr. Doneski, who responded to subsequent queries from an attorney for the Gazette, has offered an explanation for the failure to produce the information. The Gazette has filed an appeal with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s office, which has the matter under investigation.
Public records are governed by two statutes: the federal Freedom of Information Act, which applies to federal records, and the Massachusetts Public Records Law, which applies to records held by a state or local agency, board or other government entity. The state public records law is geared toward transparency. “Every record that is made or received by a government entity or employee is presumed to be a public record unless a specific statutory exemption permits or requires it to be withheld in whole or in part,” the law states in part. The law also says: “If a records custodian claims an exemption and withholds a record, the records custodian has the burden of showing how the exemption applies to the record and why it should be withheld.” The Gazette made a similar request to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission on May 13, seeking emails and other correspondence between the commission and Stop & Shop. The response from the commission was prompt and the emails were provided two days later, on May 15. They formed the basis of a story in the May 23 issue of the Vineyard Gazette.