Super Tuesday Notes

On Tuesday night voters will gather in four of the six Vineyard towns to conduct their annual town meetings. Town meetings are one of the oldest — and some say purest — forms of democracy. The origins of town meeting as an early spring affair date to a time when such meetings were scheduled around the agrarian life and calendar: this was a convenient time for farmers.

Although happily the Vineyard still has many farmers, daily life on the Island is no longer so agrarian but more akin to that in any suburban small town, with people hurrying to work, children off to school and soccer, and elderly residents lingering over newspapers and conversation at coffee shops in the mornings and afternoons.

But when annual town meetings begin, the pace quickens. There are more government committee meetings, and town hall clerks keep late hours preparing warrants, election slates, voter handbooks and town reports.

Voters in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, Tisbury and West Tisbury are encouraged to spend some time over the weekend studying their respective warrants, which are packed with complicated spending requests and alterations to town bylaws that will affect generations to come. These are decisions that deserve careful, thoughtful consideration. Healthy debate on the town meeting floor is in order, and of course expected, but good debate can only come among voters who have acquainted themselves thoroughly with the topics at hand.

There are many to consider.

The mood this year is of course colored by the state of the national economy, and Island towns have wisely begun to examine their own financial affairs more closely, looking for efficiencies and planning for the future.

At the top of the to-do list for every town is an unfunded pension and health insurance liability that adds up to nearly ninety million dollars. This is a bill that will have to be paid in the future. At a special town meeting Tisbury voters agreed this week to set up a trust fund for the pension liability, and next week voters will be asked to approve money to go into the fund.

Tisbury voters will also confront the thorny question of whether to again put in motion a home rule petition for the state legislature to consider allowing the sale of beer and wine in restaurants.

The beer and wine question was rejected last year after an unprecedented tie vote and subsequent recount that kept the status quo.

Now the question is back again. Members of the business community, many of whom are understandably uneasy over what the coming summer will bring in the economic downturn, are the main supporters of the initiative.

But many longtime residents of this town, whose character is defined by its status as the understated main port of entry for visitors and the only down-Island town to still maintain a working waterfront, strongly oppose the alcohol initiative. And it’s hard not to agree with them, because their values ring true.

Salary increases for government employees have been a heated topic of discussion as towns struggle to keep their budgets under control, some better than others. Early in the year Edgartown took the lead and eliminated all cost of living increases for town employees.

The all-Island finance committee asked every government entity to follow suit.

Some balked, including the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. Edgartown leaders became so miffed at the commission’s perceived arrogance over pay increases that they pulled the town assessment out of the budget and put it on the ballot as an override question. The gesture is purely symbolic because the assessment is mandatory. But the vote will act as an opinion poll of sorts on the commission in the town.

In West Tisbury voters will be asked to resolve an intra-government dispute over cost of living pay increases for town employees. They will also take action on a number of lengthy and complicated zoning bylaw amendments, including one that would add more protection for ancient ways, a wise move for this rural town that stands at the crossroads between up-Island and down. A separate wind energy conservation bylaw is densely written and difficult to understand.

In Oak Bluffs and Edgartown the warrants are relatively straightforward with a few odd twists, including a bylaw in Oak Bluffs that would ban car washing on town streets in the commercial district.

Sometimes warrant articles are more interesting for what they don’t say.

But that does not apply to voters, who are urged to clear their calendars, get babysitters (good for the local economy) and come out to their annual town meetings.

It’s the Vineyard’s Super Tuesday.

And it’s your town and your tax dollars that will be spent, on salaries, police cruisers, fire truck repairs, restoration of historic buildings and shared services for health care, shellfish management and pest control.

Calls to mind the words of a Gazette editorial published in 1954:

“Whether democracy works is up to the voters themselves, their willingness to turn out, to speak their minds, and to vote as their convictions dictate.”