Like the ceremonial first pitch on opening day, the political season in Oak Bluffs uncoiled last night slowly and politely before candidates and voters really stepped to the plate and took their first cuts at a range of issues - from the flagrant violation of zoning bylaws to the lack of progress on affordable housing in town.
The forum was candidates night, an event sponsored and moderated by the Martha's Vineyard League of Women Voters.
Challengers Vincent Chestnut and Kerry Scott, both trying to unseat one-term incumbent selectman Todd Rebello, went on the offensive and criticized town leadership.
"I wrote some letters to selectmen, and did I ever get a reply? Not even an acknowledgement they received anything," said Mr. Chestnut, a locksmith.
He blasted Oak Bluffs leaders for the sorry state of the town hall building. "I don't have a good feeling going into the Oak Bluffs town hall. There's tar paper flapping around," he said.
Ms. Scott, citing her own work last year to keep the town from withdrawing from the Martha's Vineyard Commission, said she was troubled by how many people backed the efforts to leave the regional agency.
"Their one solution was to leave the commission that could save us," she said.
Ms. Scott, a business owner, then quizzed both her competitors on their views of the MVC, quickly showing herself as the one commission loyalist and self-avowed conservationist.
Said Mr. Chestnut about the commission: "The Martha's Vineyard Commission should be speaking for all of us, not just a few tree-huggers."
Mr. Rebello, who supported efforts to withdraw, sidestepped the query from Ms. Scott, who asked him to explain why he believed Oak Bluffs would have been better off out of the commission.
"In the Spring of 2003, I advocated for withdrawal. The town meeting gave us a direction, and I fought for the right to have that vote," he said.
The incumbent, who is seeking a second term as selectman, cited his achievements in curtailing the number of moped rentals in town and his efforts to tune up the town's fiscal health and avoid budget overrides.
"On the management of town finances, while other towns in the state are struggling, Oak Bluffs is swimming the other way, doing it right," he said.
For the first time in four years, the Oak Bluffs political landscape does not lie under the cloud of a four letter word - golf.
The backdrop is worth noting. Just over a week ago, the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank announced a deal to purchase 190 acres of the southern woodlands from Connecticut developer Corey Kupersmith, who tried three times to win approval from the MVC to build a luxury, private golf course there.
Last week at a selectmen's meeting and again last night at the candidates forum, Mr. Rebello wasted little time mining the event for some political capital.
After a question from Tim Dobel, asking the incumbent to explain the selectmen's role in fostering the deal, Mr. Rebello said, "We massaged everybody's backs, kept them talking. If one party was upset, we went in."
He then hedged a little. "Were we the masterminds of the final negotiation? No," he admitted. "That was Mr. Lafferty (Mr. Kupersmith's chief spokesman) and Mr. Lengyel (director of the land bank commission). Our role was just to keep them in there."
The southern woodlands deal is hinging on approval of a 26-lot housing subdivision planned for 90 acres of the woodlands, a plan that goes to the Martha's Vineyard Commission next week for review as a development of regional impact.
Mr. Rebello described the deal last night as fragile.
What remains unclear is whether a resolution to the longstanding controversy over the southern woodlands will affect the selectmen's race. If last night was any indication, voters seems to be shifting attention onto other areas.
One man rose to his feet to ask why selectmen aren't taking steps to deal with zoning violations, specifically a three-story building being constructed in the North Bluff section.
"The selectmen appoint the building inspector and the zoning board of appeals," he said. "The buck stops with selectmen. What are you going to do?"
Mr. Rebello said the zoning board acts as the town's checks and balances. "I put my trust in the ZBA," he added.
On the topic of affordable housing, Luke DeBettencourt asked candidates what they would do to staunch the exodus of young people from the Vineyard who can't afford housing or find jobs.
Mr. Rebello cited the southern woodlands deal which may generate money for affordable housing projects and the creation of new lots for the resident homesite committee.
"The resident homesite committee is active, but we need to make sure the right people qualify for lots . . . make sure it's somebody who's earned it," said the selectman.
But Ms. Scott denounced selectmen's inertia on this issue, arguing that they had failed for years to reappoint a homesite committee. "It's an issue that infuriates me," she said. "For six, seven, eight years - as people have been leaving the Island - we've had land that we've not made available."
The annual election in Oak Bluffs takes place April 15. In addition to the three-way race for a selectman's seat, Oak Bluffs voters will decide five other contested races.