Memo to Oak Bluffs: Action Plan Needed

Effective governing, like almost everything else in life, begins with good intentions. But success ultimately rests on good actions.

The report of the Attorney General’s investigation into the way Oak Bluffs handled various town construction and repairs, released this week, does little to illuminate why town officials doled out work to several contractors to renovate town hall and repair the town library. We are prepared to believe, as town administrator Michael Dutton insists, that the motivation was simply a desire to save town money, support local contractors and perhaps avoid burdensome paperwork. But even the town acknowledged that the process by which the work was awarded failed to follow competitive bidding laws and the town’s own procurement bylaw.

The report notes that a single vendor, Powers Electric, was paid $185,546 over 20 months in 113 different payments, creating an appearance of bid-splitting — a practice of carving up projects into small pieces to avoid scrutiny of the whole. Given the facts, the Attorney General had little option but to issue a scathing reprimand of the town’s practices, noting “a pattern of disregard and certain evidence of intentional avoidance of the public construction bidding laws.”

Public bidding is no guarantee of good workmanship — as public works officials in other Island towns can attest. While Oak Bluffs officials have been forced to explain the process by which they gave work to Vineyard contractors, town leaders in Tisbury and Chilmark are dealing with a completely different set of issues: the apparent bungling of large public works projects by an off-Island contractor, Seaver Construction.

In each of these cases, we have been told, “Things are different on the Vineyard,” and to some extent that is true. Finding qualified and certified workers, getting materials and manpower to and from an Island create challenges that towns on the mainland don’t have to face. Moreover, where public bidding may result in lower short-term spending, it doesn’t factor in the longer-term economic health of a community. A broader view of how current public procurement laws work and don’t work on the Vineyard is certainly in order.

But citizens must have confidence that their public officials are not only looking after their welfare but abiding by the letter of the law. And in Oak Bluffs, on the heels of a procedural misstep involving the failure to properly post the special election warrant, release of the state attorney’s report on procurement only adds to a growing perception that no one in town government is paying attention to the details.

Oak Bluffs selectmen have scheduled an executive session for Monday to meet with an unspecified town official to discuss unspecified complaints. At the very least, voters need to know what specific steps are being taken to get control of town government.

Actions, not intentions.