Exercise Caution Over Blind Trust, Commission Told


Pleas to the Martha's Vineyard Commission to slow plans for
creating a blind trust came from every possible side last night -
supporters, critics and even the agency's own members.

Three of the commission's newest members opposed the formation
of such a charitable trust, and several other members demanded further
investigation before accepting gifts from the trust.

"I cannot imagine a donation of any size powerful enough to
sway the commission. The commission is made up of 16 independent
thinkers who won't be pushed around. Donations are not going to
affect how we do our business, but it may create the perception that it
will," said commissioner Doug Sederholm, who has served on the
commission for just more than a year.

"Whatever [money] we raise in the blind trust is not important
enough to risk that. Public perception, even by our detractors, is
important. It's just not worth it," he added.

The commission came under fire from several public officials last
fall when it announced intentions to collect donations through an
independent charitable trust. As established, the trust, to be managed
by three former commissioners, would shield the identity of donors.
Donations would help tackle planning projects, legal defense and
building repair.

The commission hosted a public forum last night to allow officials
and citizens to air their concerns about the trust proposal. A half
dozen citizens attended the forum; only one supported the concept.

Reasons for opposing the trust ran the gamut. Some suggested that
shielding the identity of donors would be an affront to American ideals.
Some thought that hidden information would tarnish the
commission's reputation. Barbara Day, a supporter of the
commission, argued that full disclosure of donor identity would actually
foster giving.

"It's more important to recognize supporters than
detractors," Mrs. Day said, encouraging commissioners to print the
names of the donors in the newspapers. "It helps the MVC come out
of isolation. It lets you know when you are in trouble, who your
supporters are. A blind trust just casts you in the shadows."

"What you're saying is that you don't trust the
public to trust you," she continued.

Several critics urged the commission to tackle $270,000 worth of
building repairs, planning initiatives, legal expenses and salary
increases - a proposal floated for the coming year - with
tax dollars. MVC executive director Mark London has said the commission
may need that much additional money for each of the next three years.

"First and foremost, you should go right to the towns. Risk
having them turn you down. As much as I disagree with some of your
decisions, your debt is our debt," said Whit Manter, a resident of
West Tisbury.

Deacon Perrotta, newly appointed to the commission by the Oak Bluffs
selectmen, also urged fellow commissioners to tack on all the
agency's needs to the town assessments.

"I've been in a situation before when governments cut
their budgets to make it more palatable. But the time comes when you
have to bite the bullet. The commission has real expenses. We should
submit a true budget to the people of Martha's Vineyard,"
said Mr. Perrotta.

If the commission had already included the $270,000 of proposed
expenses in this year's budget, towns would have seen a 50 per
cent increase in their assessments over last year's rates. As it
is, assessments increased 12 per cent over last year, to a total of
$676,000. According to the agency's legislative charter, Chapter
831, the commission can charge Island towns up to .036 per cent of the
equalized property valuation. Currently, the commission is only charging
towns about one-sixth of that $3.6 million cap.

Mr. London rebuffed claims that the agency failed to submit a true
accounting of the organization's expenses to towns.

"We make every attempt to submit a bare-bones budget,"
Mr. London said. "But it's not that clearcut or
straightforward. We can do more with more money, so we put two numbers
out there. The first is the basic number to have the commission
function. The second is desirable funding to help us do our job

The bulk of this extra $270,000 in funds would cover mounting legal

The commission is fighting lawsuits on a number of fronts, including
challenges related to Down Island Golf Club and the southern woodlands
as well as two affordable housing projects the commission approved in
the last year.

The agency already earmarked $120,000 in its budget to cover legal

Of the $270,000 in extra needs, about $70,000 would help with
Islandwide planning efforts, aimed to enhance town by town planning
exercises currently underway. Another $50,000 would help repair the
commission's Oak Bluffs office, the Olde Stone Building, which has
fallen into disrepair over the last several years. The front entrance is
completely blocked because of structural deficiencies.

The remainder of the funds would help bring staff salaries up to
competitive levels, Mr. London said.

According to the established guidelines of the blind trust, donors
must adhere to confidentiality. They must not have a project in front of
the commission or plan to have such a project in the coming two years.
Violation of the agreement would be considered perjury.

But critics said last night that such precautions are not enough to
protect the commission from pressure or the perception of influence.

"Your donations are far more likely to come from someone who
doesn't want something approved," said Mr. Manter, offering
an example that members of the Vineyard Golf Club might donate money in
an attempt to persuade the commission to block a luxury golf course on
the southern woodlands.

"Could we get them to sign a statement that they have no
financial interest [in a project before or coming before the
commission]?" asked commissioner Linda Sibley.

"It's almost close to impossible to do that on the
Vineyard. Everyone is connected to someone else on this Island,"
Mr. Manter replied.

"Sunshine is the only bleach?" asked Mrs. Sibley.

"To get clean you'd have to have [a donor] who has never
even heard of Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Manter said.

Despite sharp criticisms aimed at the commission's blind trust
concept, the discussion remained civil until the very end. Brion
McGroarty, an opponent of the commission and supporter of the Down
Island Golf Club, said that the blind trust would perpetuate the
unbalanced influence that wealthy citizens and towns have on the land
use planning agency.

"To quote Linda Sibley . . . I know several wealthy people who
would give money to the blind trust," Mr. McGroarty said.

Mrs. Sibley stopped Mr. McGroarty in his tracks, insisting him she
had never said such a thing.

"I may have said, ‘There are wealthy people who would
give money to the blind trust.' There's a big difference.
Probably poor people out there would give money as well," said
Mrs. Sibley.

The discussion promptly ended, but Mrs. Sibley confronted Mr.
McGroarty after the forum broke up, saying to him, "I'm
bloody sick and tired of people misquoting me."

During the Down Island golf debate, Mrs. Sibley had been accused by
some opponents of making racially inflammatory remarks; but critics were
never able to produce a record of such comment, and she denied making

The commission assured the public that they will continue to solicit
feedback and will further discuss the blind trust among themselves in
the coming months.

"It's very important for us to get feedback because we
obviously haven't cracked the nut," said commissioner Megan