Mr. Hearn Finds Political Change Suits Him Fine
By IAN FEIN
Third in a series of profiles leading up to the West Tisbury election.
You might call Glenn Hearn the presumptive Reform Party nominee of West Tisbury town politics.
Since 1999 he has ousted incumbents from the land bank commission and board of selectmen in close elections, and now he has his sights set on the board of assessors.
Mr. Hearn will challenge longtime board chairman Michael Colaneri in a three-way election in the annual town election next month.
"In all these cases, I felt that the incumbent needed to be replaced," Mr. Hearn said this week in an interview at his home on Tiasquam Brook Farm. "I'm not trying to arm wrestle with people or anything like that. I'm running because I think I can help make things better for the town."
He said it was time for a change in the West Tisbury assessors' office.
"We need some new blood in there, some new ideas," Mr. Hearn said. "They've been doing things their way for 30 years, but I feel very strongly that there are some things that have to be done differently."
Mr. Hearn, 68, is careful to note that he is not, technically, an Island native. (He was born on the Cape and moved to the Vineyard at the age of three.) He grew up in Vineyard Haven and in 1960 married his high school sweetheart, Linda, a West Tisbury native whom he met at the Tisbury School. "She used to cheer for me in the high school basketball games," Mr. Hearn recalled.
After their high school years, the Hearns lived for more than three decades in the greater Boston area, where Mr. Hearn worked in the electrical field and taught at Northeastern University. But on most weekends and in the summers they came to the Island with their three children. The Hearn family has been a fixture at the West Tisbury Farmers' Market for more than a quarter-century.
Mr. Hearn has kept busy since he and his wife moved to the Island full-time in 1992. He taught math and started an aquaculture program at the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School. He spearheaded much of the new agricultural hall project as a trustee of the Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society. And he is one of four founders of the FARM Institute, a Katama-based nonprofit that teaches children about farming. He also sits on the town affordable housing committee.
As a selectman, Mr. Hearn stepped into the controversy that has engulfed town assessors in the last year: the Graham tax case. The ongoing trial - in which town resident William W. Graham is challenging more than $100 million in property values - has served as a lightning rod in town, sparking heated passions from people on both sides of the dispute.
Some town residents have criticized Mr. Hearn and his fellow selectmen for meddling too much in the assessors' affairs, while others have criticized the selectmen for not exhibiting enough oversight. Mr. Hearn is trying to bridge the gap between boards by serving on both.
The Graham case opened the door to public complaints from a wide range of town residents who are unhappy with the perceived lack of accountability and responsiveness in the assessors' office. At town meetings and in discussions among selectmen and assessors, Mr. Hearn has repeatedly stated that the town must ensure that its system of determining property values is open, fair and understandable to everyone.
He said he is dismayed by some accounts he has heard from taxpayers of their interactions with town assessors. "We need a more professional and pleasing approach to dealing with the public," Mr. Hearn said.
Mr. Graham's case challenges aspects of the valuation system used in West Tisbury, and he alleges fraud in the assessors' office, among other things. The trial attracted wide attention from state officials and assessors across the commonwealth. The highly anticipated decision from the Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board is expected later this year.
Mr. Hearn said the case, even if it is found in favor of the town, has uncovered some practices that need to be changed.
"I'm dying to hear what the tax board has to say," Mr. Hearn said. "But when that comes out, no matter what, I'm going to the [Massachusetts] Department of Revenue to ask for advice. Whatever the tax board rules, I think we are going to have to change the way we do some things in West Tisbury."
Mr. Hearn said it was vital that town assessors clearly explain their valuation system to any taxpayer who asks, and he questioned how well the current board knows it. Mr. Colaneri testified at the tax board hearing that he was not familiar with the system.
"Michael always tells people that the process involves thousands of factors, but I disagree with that," Mr. Hearn said.
If elected, Mr. Hearn said he would work toward more openness in the assessing department. He would improve communication with the public and with town selectmen, make more public records known and available to townspeople, adopt a clear policy for how wetlands are defined and valued, and create a log book for all site visits to properties.
As a selectman he has already helped convince the assessors to identify their legal expenses as a separate line item in their departmental budget. "They wanted to do it the old way, but not on my watch," Mr. Hearn said. "I insisted on the line item. This way, they have to explain their requests to the voters."
Mr. Hearn said he is concerned about the costs associated with the three other West Tisbury property tax suits pending at the state tax board. If elected, he said he would urge the board to try to settle things outside of court. "In any case we have, going to the appellate tax board would be the absolute last resort," Mr. Hearn said.
Monitoring the town's rising legal expenses in the Graham tax case one year ago, he intervened before it went to the hearing and helped organize a mediation session between the parties. Mr. Hearn is still unclear why Mr. Colaneri called off a second settlement discussion.
"There should have been more meaningful mediation. The way they ran the whole show was completely ridiculous," Mr. Hearn said this week. "You might have a responsibility to defend the system, but you also have a responsibility to try to work things out."
Mr. Hearn has a number of specific criticisms of the way the assessors and their attorney handled the Graham case, and said the record length of the hearing was caused in part by some of the town's mistakes.
He is also unhappy with their handling of legal bills from the case. Mr. Hearn said he feels that the potential costs of the case were deliberately kept from the selectmen.
It is time for the assessors to switch attorneys, he said, pointing to their unsuccessful case against the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank two years ago, which cost town taxpayers $10,000 in legal fees. As a selectman, Mr. Hearn this winter voted to appoint the assessors' attorney as town counsel, but he said that once the final briefs for the Graham case are filed, he would like to see their relationship end.
He said it was also time to reevaluate the assessors' reliance on its third-party appraisal company, Vision Appraisal Technology Inc. of Northboro. The work of Vision Appraisal came under intense scrutiny in the Graham case, and has also been under the spotlight in Edgartown, where the company has admitted it made substantial errors. Edgartown assessors now intend to use the Vision software, but do most of the valuation work themselves - an arrangement that Mr. Hearn wants to explore for West Tisbury as well.
Mr. Hearn assured he is not trying to amass town offices, and said he tried hard before filing his candidacy to convince other qualified residents to run for the seat. He chose not to comment on his fellow challenger in the race, Seven Gates resident Jonathan Revere, and also chose not to speculate about the upcoming special election for a second assessor seat.
It remains unknown whether a proposed town bylaw, which would limit the number of elected offices any West Tisbury resident can hold, will affect Mr. Hearn's campaign. But Mr. Hearn said he feels so strongly that things need to change, he would not let the bylaw keep him from running for assessor.
"The people in this town know me. If they want me in both positions, they'll vote me in," Mr. Hearn said. "It's up to them."