On the surface, the four candidates running for the open seat on the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen in next week's special election share the same ideas on most of the major issues in recent town politics.
Herbert A. (Bert) Combra Jr., Kenneth DeBettencourt, Ronald DiOrio and David E. Morris Jr. are all vying for the single seat vacated when former selectman Michael Dutton stepped down to take over as town administrator.
Polls will be open Tuesday from noon to 7 p.m. in the meeting room of the Oak Bluffs library.
In interviews this week all four candidates said they want to take a close look at the high number of personal service contracts in Oak Bluffs, and all believe the question of whether the town should continue to host the annual Monster Shark Tournament should be placed on the ballot of a town meeting.
All say minutes for regular and executive session meetings should be readily available to the public, and all agree that the recent spate of infighting and public disagreements among selectmen - a longtime staple of Oak Bluffs politics - can be replaced by a spirit of civility and collaboration.
There are nevertheless differences.
Mr. Combra is a no-nonsense former selectman, former Martha's Vineyard Commission member and retired town highway superintendent who decided to run for selectman to return the government to the people.
"I'm not happy with the way meetings and government are being conducted. The whole environment is too hostile, and I couldn't sit on the sidelines any longer," Mr. Combra said.
He said the town has spent too much time, energy and money debating differences of opinions among selectmen. He also feels that town leaders are often too tentative and prone to discussing an issue or seeking a legal opinion instead of making a decision.
Mr. Combra said he felt no pressure to run for selectman because of family political ties. Both his brother, Richard Combra Sr., his nephew Todd Rebello, and late brother in law Anthony (Tubby) Rebello are former selectmen. His nephew Richard Combra Jr. is the current town highway superintendent.
"I never felt any type of pressure. My family was actually shocked when I took the papers out. The only one who knew was my wife," Mr. Combra said.
Mr. Combra pledged to work toward a more cohesive board of selectmen.
"We all have to work together. Everyone has the right to voice their opinion, but when it comes down to it, we should not be making decisions individually," he said.
Mr. DiOrio, co-owner of Craftworks and president of the Martha's Vineyard chapter of Habitat for Humanity, brings a more cerebral approach to government. He is a past president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, and worked for large construction contractors and labor unions in Washington, D.C. for several years before moving to the Island full time in 1994.
His central campaign theme is long-range planning. If elected, Mr. DiOrio said, he would push to create a five-year master plan to address a range of issues, including economic development, planning and zoning and housing issues.
"My experience is that when you haven't laid out a plan you find that things don't go as smoothly as you hoped. We shouldn't be dealing with things just as they come up, we should be preparing for them before they happen. We need to ask ourselves, where do we want to be in five years?" Mr. DiOrio said.
He said the town is lucky to have talented and capable people on its boards and commissions, but said their hard work often goes for naught.
"These people take up a specific issue, and then all the ideas and all the work they do is never melded into any type of larger plan. It seems now we are stuck in the same cycle - an issue will be raised in the winter, discussed, and nothing is done when it becomes a problem in the summer," he said.
Mr. DiOrio said he is especially interested in the town's practice of giving out personal service contracts to as many as twelve or more employees, a larger number than the other towns on the Vineyard and possibly the state.
Having worked on all sides of labor negotiations - representing unions, local government and even arbitration - Mr. DiOrio said he is keenly aware of how awarding special contracts to people outside the collective bargaining unit can hurt employee morale.
Mr. DeBettencourt said he takes a people-friendly approach to government. He said he plans to reach out to the working man if elected, and would make a point to talk to many people before making decisions. He worked for New England Telephone for 26 years as a telephone installer and repairman, and served on several town boards, including the board of health, conservation commission and shellfish committee.
Now retired, Mr. DeBettencourt is better known for his flower stand on Wing Road.
While selling his colorful bunches of zinnias, he gets to do what he likes best - talk to people. He said he would bring a friendly attitude to the board, something he feels has been missing recently.
"You have to get along. You have to work together. I think I would bring an open mind and stability to the board," he said.
In a recent interview at the flower stand, Mr. DeBettencourt smiled and blushed when an excited patron said she saw him featured on a recent television special on the Boston Victory Garden, to which he contributed flowers.
"The producers said I was a natural," he boasted with a smile.
Mr. Morris, a former business owner and current member of the school committee, is making his third run for selectman. He said he supports general changes in town government, such as bringing more cohesiveness to the board, but also supports specific changes - such as forcing downtown businesses to provide their own trash barrels and clean up their appearance.
He also wants to get rid of the dumpsters along the harbor and repair the seawall and dunes along the North Bluff.
Mr. Morris said he is concerned with the amount of money the town allocates to the high school, and would use his position as selectman to voice his concerns about issues at the school, such as building upkeep.
"We spent $14 million on the building and now we can't spend the money to fix some of the problems over there. I would urge the selectmen to go over there and take a closer look at what needs to be done to that building," he said.
He said the town has shown a lack of foresight in planning for the future, citing a lack of parking at the new library building.
"We built a library and a town hall, and then we have no place to park. It doesn't make a lot of sense," he said.
Most of all, Mr. Morris said he would like to bring calm and order back to the board of selectmen.
"People just need to start showing some respect in this town. I think people are just so sick and tired or hearing about how this person said this - and this person doesn't like this other person. All these personal agendas have to stop," he said.