After nearly six months without an executive director, the Martha's Vineyard Commission took the first step Sunday toward securing a seasoned Montreal planner for its top administrative post.
Eight commission members voted unanimously to recommend to the full commission that Canadian planner Mark London be hired as executive director.
"I'm really excited, to say the least. It's been a long process. We had a disappointing first search round, but it was worth the wait. We are all very excited about Mark," said commission chairman James Vercruysse.
Former executive director Charles Clifford announced his resignation last September and officially left the post at the end of February. The first round of the search process crumbled this spring when finalists dropped out before final interviews.
For two hours Sunday, Mr. London responded to a long list of questions from commission members and staff with relative ease and a bit of subtle humor.
"I made a list of benefits and detriments [for this job]. A detriment is that the Vineyard would no longer be a benefit for me," the 54-year-old, Montreal-based planner said with a laugh.
Mr. London and his wife have spent a month on the Vineyard each summer for 22 years. His two grown daughters still look for any excuse to spend the entire summer on the Vineyard, he said.
"It's like an old-fashioned movie. We have a snapshot of every year. We return and see what's been added. When we first arrived, expansion happened in a more traditional way - very town and country," Mr. London said in a conversation with the Gazette yesterday.
Now, Mr. London said during Sunday's interview, development within each town is starting to push against its borders.
"The strip is stretching along. Vineyard Haven is practically merging into Oak Bluffs," he said.
An energy spread through the Olde Stone Building in Oak Bluffs Sunday as commission members developed an easy rapport with the candidate. The group lost a quorum at the end of the interview, or the commission would have voted to hire Mr. London the same day. Contract negotiations for the top position - at a salary of between $70,000 and $85,000 - await a formal full commission vote Thursday.
Despite the Vineyard being his family's summer respite, Mr. London said he has always watched the Island's changes with a planner's eye.
"The towns, the communities, the conservation groups have done an extraordinary job of maintaining rural quality under the pressures of such growth," he said.
Mr. London has over 31 years of planning experience, involving nearly every aspect of the field from land use and growth management to zoning and subdivision control. Mr. London also has extensive fund-raising and management experience under his belt. While he admits he is unfamiliar at present with Massachusetts laws and politics as well as coastal management, he is a self-declared "quick study."
For the last 13 years, Mr. London has been a planner and team head for the city of Montreal, where he led such projects as the first phase of Montreal's downtown plan, the master plan to convert the World's Fair Expo 67 into the city's largest park, and the planning of the revitalization of the historic Lachine Canal. These projects have forced Mr. London to manage extensive public and private investments totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
Through the past two decades, Mr. London also served as chairman of the Westmount architectural and planning commission, where he guided the establishment of a comprehensive system for managing conservation and development in a distinctive community. An English-speaking municipality located in the central portion of the island of Montreal, Westmount was forcibly annexed into the city of Montreal in 2001. As an employee of both Montreal and Westmount, the merging offered Mr. London a unique vantage point from which to witness wrestling between regional and local control.
"The autonomy of towns is very important. It will require treading a delicate balance when handling Islandwide issues while respecting the autonomy of each town," Mr. London said Monday.
The interview questions brushed against the current southern woodlands golf dispute and the commission's tenuous relationship with the town of Oak Bluffs. Healing divides - internally and externally - remained central during Sunday's session.
"The commission is elected by the people of Martha's Vineyard or appointed by selectmen," Mr. London said. "You are devoting huge amounts of volunteer time, and you are not here for your own interests. People make assumptions that there's something secret going on. There's a disconnect.
"But this is the people's commission doing the people's business," Mr. London told the group of commissioners.
Mr. London candidly admitted that dealing with the often hostile pressures and scrutiny facing the commission right now will not be an easy task.
"I hope we can get over reasonably quickly the current divisiveness," Mr. London said, announcing a commitment to build and restore relationships with leaders in every town.
"There's no one answer. You can't maintain an ongoing dialogue with 15,000 people. You've got to identify with the leaders. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen," he said.
Mr. London was prepared for the interview - having read and reread the commission's enabling legislation, Chapter 831, the Cape Cod Commission's charter as well as numerous Island studies.
"He seems like he's already up to speed to be a functioning member of the commission," Mr. Vercruysse said.
If the full commission votes to hire Mr. London this Thursday, he will relocate to the Island by the end of September. Mr. London's wife, industrial designer Linda Thompson, will continue designing for April Cornell stores from a home on the Island.
"Her bags are packed and by the front door," Mr. London said with a laugh.
Mr. London said the commission vacancy comes at an opportune time in his career. He is currently between projects in Montreal and stepped down from the Westmount architectural and planning commission after the municipality's recent annexation.
"[My wife and I] have long talked about the possibility of moving to the Vineyard," Mr. London said, telling how he learned of the vacancy from a commission member during a trip to Lucy Vincent Beach in June.
"It's a happy coincidence the job is available. It's the right timing," he added.