Martha's Vineyard Commission Responds to Technical Problems

Gazette Senior Writer

Amid a ripple of allegations about possible open meeting law violations on two separate fronts, leaders at the Martha's Vineyard Commission this week turned to their attorney for help.

Eric Wodlinger, a partner at Choate Hall & Stewart in Boston, recommended that the commission follow the advice of the Cape and Islands district attorney and take a second vote on the written decision for the Down Island Golf club plan.

The procedural revote took place last night and it ignited an ugly confrontation between a small group of protesters and commissioners attempting to conduct orderly business. Oak Bluffs businessman and golf course advocate Tim Dobel and attorney Theophilus Nix Jr., attempted to drown out the commissioners with shouts:

"The people of Oak Bluffs want you to change your vote." "We are finished, finito, get it? Oak Bluffs is out."

From his Boston office, Mr. Wodlinger explained the revote: "It's a clerical error; we are just dotting an ‘i' and crossing a ‘t' as far as I am concerned," said Mr. Wodlinger.

Mr. Wodlinger also recommended that the commission open to the public the interview process for a new executive director, although the MVC attorney said he disagrees with the district attorney that the commission acted improperly when its executive committee recently interviewed a candidate for the position in executive session.

The commission has come under fire in the last two weeks for the possible open meeting law violations.

First there was a problem with the Feb. 21 regular meeting of the commission. Among other business, at the meeting the commission voted on its written decision on the Down Island Golf club plan. The commission voted to reject the golf club plan on Feb. 7, but the oral vote is not considered final until the written decision is approved.

At the Feb. 21 meeting there was some confusion because there had been talk earlier in the week about possibly canceling the meeting when executive director Charles Clifford said he did not have the document finished. On Wednesday that week, Mr. Clifford had instructed the commission administrative assistant to call the local newspapers to tell them that the meeting would be canceled. But in fact the meeting was never canceled, after commission chairman James Vercruysse decided that it made no sense to cancel the meeting and told Mr. Clifford to finish the written decision.

Under MVC policy, only the chairman of the commission has the authority to cancel a meeting.

The meeting was held as posted, but the Martha's Vineyard Times ran a news item that day reporting that the meeting was canceled.

Kenneth Rusczyk, an Oak Bluffs selectman who is also a member of the commission, questioned the legality of the meeting.

Later the commission received a letter from an assistant district attorney who works with the office of Cape and Islands district attorney Philip A. Rollins. In the letter, Robert J. Galibois 2nd said the district attorney had received a complaint and he requested all records of the meeting.

In a letter to the commission last week, Mr. Galibois advised the commission that in his opinion the meeting was a violation of the open meeting law because of the faulty communications about the canceled meeting. Mr. Galibois advised the commission to "rehold" the Feb. 21 meeting.

The commission executive committee met this week and discussed the issue in executive session with Mr. Wodlinger. The committee went into executive session because of the pending litigation surrounding the golf course project. Attorneys for developer Corey Kupersmith now have four lawsuits pending against the commission, including the most recent appeal of the decision to reject the golf club plan. The appeal was filed in Dukes County superior court this week.

Following the executive session, the commission confirmed that a second vote would be taken on the written decision.

"No one has been injured or harmed by this. It's correcting a clerical error," Mr. Wodlinger said. Mr. Wodlinger also helped the commission draft a public notice for last night's meeting.

"The commission will ratify and re-adopt the written decision on the Down Island DRI in order to address a possible procedural defect under the open meeting law," the notice said in part.

On a separate matter, the commission executive committee also voted this week to recommend that the search committee hold its next executive director candidate interview in public.

The commission also received a letter from Mr. Galabois two weeks ago after the search committee had interviewed one candidate in executive session.

Mr. Galabois did not say that the commission had violated the law, but instead he simply restated the section of the law that applies to candidate interviews, placing part of the language in italics for emphasis.

Mr. Wodlinger said this week that he believes the interview was proper because the candidate was not a finalist and was not interviewed by the full commission.

"It's a gray area," Mr. Wodlinger said. But in his telephone conference with members of the executive committee this week, Mr. Wodlinger said while he disagrees with the assistant district attorney, the issue is probably not worth a full-blown legal dispute, especially in light of the fact that the executive director search is now in tatters after two of four possible candidates dropped out when they learned that their names had been made public.

One candidate was piqued when a reporter for the Martha's Vineyard Times reportedly telephoned the human resources department of her current employer to ask questions about the candidate's background.

Mr. Wodlinger called the situation unfortunate.

"There is a Martha's Vineyard Commission search committee that is trying to find a new executive director, and by going public with the Martha's Vineyard Times on their tail, they lost two candidates," he said.

On Wednesday the executive committee agreed to recommend that the search committee release the minutes of the executive session when the first candidate was interviewed. The second candidate will be interviewed in public on March 30.

A meeting of the search committee will be held on Monday afternoon.

The commission has been buffeted by a series of minor problems in the aftermath of its vote to reject the golf club plan in early February. Two members of the commission reported this week that they had been the targets of retaliation.

Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman who is a member of the commission and who owns a lawn cutting business, said he received a telephone call this week from the head of an Oak Bluffs homeowners association canceling a contract to cut the roadsides in the subdivision. Mr. Israel said Bill Jones, a resident of Bayes Hill who is also the guidance counselor at the Oak Bluffs School, called him to say that the grass-cutting contract would be canceled because of his vote to turn down the golf course plan.

"I told him that I had voted my conscience; he told me that I let the town down and that I was a disgrace to Oak Bluffs," Mr. Israel said. Mr. Israel said he has been cutting the grass at Bayes Hill for 10 years.

Commission member Linda Sibley said she has received four harassing phone calls about her vote against the golf club plan.