Like a drunk stuck in a revolving door, Tisbury voters find themselves going around and around again because of beer and wine.
They have been stuck in that door for four years already, but at the second night of the annual town meeting on Wednesday night, they decided to go around for at least another year.
After a two-hour airing of the pros and cons of allowing restaurants to sell beer and wine with meals, voters agreed 136 to 109 to once more have the selectmen file a home rule petition with the state, which will inevitably mean another town-wide vote on the matter this time next year.
This year’s warrant carried 37 articles, involving the expenditure of $20-odd million, but it was always clear this one, number 14, was the one which drew the crowd.
But due to moderator Deborah Medders’s lottery system, by which articles are selected for debate, they had a long wait before they could begin their arguments. It was 9:10 p.m. on the second night of the meeting, after almost five hours of discussion on other articles over two nights, before Ms. Medders dipped her hand into her great grandmother’s buttermilk pitcher and drew out number 14.
There were cheers and whistles from the 250-odd voters.
It was a shaky start for the pro beer and wine forces; they had made a drafting error in the article. When they sought to amend it, they were challenged by opponents. Town counsel David Doneski was called upon to rule the amendment was proper.
Then the pro-alcohol team ran into another early error. In the face of a volley of questions from Robert Doyle (How many restaurants would be licensed? How would eligibility be determined? Who would enforce the bylaws? What provisions would be made for training staff?), selectman and alcohol advocate Jeff Kristal made a tactical blunder.
He moved for an amendment which would have limited the number of licenses to 13 annual and two seasonal.
Another proponent, Henry Stephenson, said about 30 restaurants would qualify. Those opposed suggested this would lead to “gamesmanship” and perceptions of favoritism in the allocation of licences.
The amendment was defeated.
Back to the main motion. Cindy Doyle argued she had done her own informal survey of business conditions in town, and restaurants appeared to be thriving without beer and wine profits.
Peter Goodale said that he had been checking restaurant reviews online, and found that their criticism of Tisbury’s eateries was not related to a lack of alcohol, but of bad service and bad food.
Nat Benjamin warned of dramatic change to the town he loved for its independent character and old-fashioned charm.
Gretchen Snyder, a member of the committee set up several years back to study the likely effects of alcohol sales, reminded everyone that it found no net benefit to the town as a whole, although restaurants would make more money.
If the restaurant owners did not like the status quo, she bluntly said, why are they here?
The supporters answered.
Dawn Braasch, owner of the Bunch of Grapes bookstore, began with effusive thanks to her fellow townspeople for their support after last July’s fire, then disputed the suggestion that there was something wrong with allowing restaurants to sell alcohol, when people already were allowed to bring as alcohol with them when they went to eat.
She said customers in her book shop often asked where they could get a glass of beer or wine. Then they went elsewhere on the Island to eat
Clarence A. (Trip) Barnes had another view.
“We decided this last year,” he said, adding that he did not want to be dragged back to the issue “year after year after year.”
The arguments went back and forth.
Nevin Sayre noted that Tisbury is a harbor of sailboats, and warned of a pending pack of cigarette boats “bombing across” from the mainland.
Beer and wine advocates ran a narrower case — essentially that alcohol sales were good for business.
Don Amaral said offering a glass of beer or wine with a meal was simply a “courtesy and convenience to the people who come to this Island,” by a town which offered not much else to tourists.
Peter Cronig argued that well-regulated restaurant sales would actually reduce the overall intake of alcohol, because as things now stood, restaurant patrons could bring any type of drink they wanted.
But most who spoke in favor made their arguments in frankly financial terms, including Ann Bennett, who lamented that Tisbury is now a “pass-through town.” Howard Miller lauded America as “a drinking nation” and said he felt an obligation to the business community to support them.
Near end of the debate someone opposed to beer and wine sales turned the mercenary argument back on the other side.
“Many people that know me think of me as a tightwad. Or parsimonious. Or frugal. I spend my money wisely,” said Aase Jones.
In Tisbury, she said, “We can have a dinner for two people for maybe $50, $70.”
But adding wine at restaurant prices would add another $30 or $40 to the bill.
That was why she liked to bring her own.
And while beer and wine was clearly the biggest issue on the minds of voters on Wednesday night — half the crowd left the moment it ended, with many articles yet to be considered — several others also prompted spirited discussion.
The major debate of the first night, on Tuesday, concerned a plan to spend $4 million on road works in town — $2.5 of it on a new road to connect the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road with State Road.
Voters split the article in two, and overwhelmingly approved spending $500,000 to rebuild or resurface various streets and sidewalks in town.
But they bridled at building the connector road, in view of the difficult economic climate.
In the end the article was amended to cut out more than $2 million for construction of the connector road, although voters did approve spending $350,000 on the design phase of the project.
Voters were in a cost-cutting mood, as became apparent again when police chief John Cashin found himself defending a requested $5,000 to buy 12 new office chairs for the police station.
He said the current seating was 12 years old with the stuffing coming out, and that he already had brought one chair of his own from home to ease the problem. But some people still objected.
Dorothy Bangs suggested the officers should sit on cheap wooden chairs.
Softer hearts prevailed, but Chief Cashin next found himself fielding questions about the need for $5,000 worth of new locks on the police station doors.
Asked Chris Fried: “I’m wondering if Chief Cashin could use the old chairs to jam them under the doors?”
But money for the locks too was passed.
Another point of contention was a proposed cost of living pay raise for nonunion town employees, mostly managers. The personnel board proposed a 4.1 per cent increase. The finance and advisory committee recommended 3.5 per cent.
After some debate voters approved the higher raise 167 to 111.
The first major debate of the second night came during discussion of the $20 million town operating budget, also related to pay — this time for Tisbury fire chief John Schilling.
Sue Tonry said Chief Schilling had benefitted from a $35,000 pay raise and the effective creation of a full-time position, without the approval of voters.
Mr. Schilling spoke at length in his own defense, outlining how he and the selectmen had come to the arrangement which sees him paid almost $53,000 annually, with no benefits.
The discussion took on a personal tone at times, but in the end voters approved the budget with the fire chief’s salary intact.
Most other items on the 37-article warrant were approved without a hitch.
One that failed to win support was a request for just over $1.5 million to begin funding the town’s huge upcoming liability for post-retirement benefits of former town employees.
The article was drawn late on the second night — after 11 p.m., when many weary voters were looking homeward.
The article was voted down 74 to 51.