The Edgartown-owned dredge was used for a private project in Katama Bay, for which no permits were approved. — Mark Alan Lovewell
The Edgartown-owned dredge was used for a private project in Katama Bay, for which no permits were approved. — Mark Alan Lovewell

The Edgartown selectmen have reported to the Massachusetts Ethics Commission the activity of the former chairman of the town dredge committee, who used the town-owned dredge for work on a private project in Katama Bay last month. The private dock work ordered by committee chairman Norman Rankow was done without a permit and in violation of state and town environmental laws.

Mr. Rankow has since resigned from the committee.

On Tuesday this week the selectmen took up the issue with their town attorney.

“This is a very serious matter, that town equipment was utilized to do unpermitted dredging for a private benefit in Katama Bay, and to dump the spoils into the bay,” town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport told the selectmen, with members of the conservation commission and dredge advisory committee in the audience. “It is the type of activity which undermines the public’s faith in their government.”

Mr. Rappaport recommended the selectmen and other town boards take “forceful action” to address the situation, including referring Mr. Rankow’s actions to the state ethics commission. Without hesitation, the selectmen agreed, and voted to send a letter written by Mr. Rappaport to the commission.

“Our instinct is to trust people. And when they exceed that trust, and go out and act on their own, they lose sight of their accountability to the taxpayers. And that’s what should be utmost in all of our minds,” said selectman Margaret Serpa after the vote. “I think it’s just deplorable that we’ve been faced with this issue.”

Selectman Arthur Smadbeck said he did not want the work of town employees and commission members taken in a negative light, and the dredge has been a benefit to the town. “This was a serious and unfortunate misstep,” Mr. Smadbeck said. Selectman Michael Donaroma was absent.

Mr. Rankow, who did not attend the meeting, has admitted that he authorized the use of the town dredge on Jan. 13 for dock work on property owned by Steven and Deborah Barnes at 51 Witchwood avenue, without first obtaining permits from the town conservation commission, even though an application was pending. Mr. Rankow was the general contractor for an extensive renovation at the Barnes property.

A survey ordered by the conservation commission showed that the project’s dredging depths exceeded what was proposed, and the sand was not placed on the beach, but instead discharged into the harbor. The unauthorized activity resulted in criticism and enforcement orders from the town conservation commission, the state Department of Environmental Protection, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).

In a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has jurisdiction over the area, Mr. Rankow said he gave early authorization for the dredge because the dredging season ends on Jan. 15, and that he “never intended to do this minor dock dredging without seeking all local, state and federal permits.”

“As is often the case in a small town, one must be careful of any conflict of interest issues,” he wrote. “In this case I am afraid I have crossed over that line and caused these problems I hope to help resolve.”

Mr. Rankow resigned from the dredge committee about two weeks ago, saying he needed a break. He has served on the commission since its inception about 15 years ago.

Mr. Rappaport said Mr. and Mrs. Barnes did not have knowledge that the dredging was unauthorized, and in a Feb. 14 letter to the Army Corps of Engineers, Mr. Barnes said the dredging work was exclusively Mr. Rankow’s decision, and he controlled timing and the method of the dredging work.

Mr. and Mrs. Barnes and Mr. Rankow could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Last week, conservation agent Jane Varkonda said the town shellfish constable would conduct a survey to see if shellfish and eelgrass were affected by the dredge. Among other things, there are 11 separate oyster farms in Katama Bay.

On Tuesday Mr. Rappaport recommended that Mr. and Mrs. Barnes should also be required to pay for an independent survey by a qualified engineering firm to make sure the habitat was not affected. Ms. Varkonda issued that order earlier Tuesday, he said.

Other recommendations from town counsel included establishing protocols to ensure that no work is done by the town dredge without proper permits and to prohibit private work by the town dredge without first adopting a formal policy from the board of selectmen, the conservation commission, the dredge advisory committee, and the shellfish constable for such work. The result of these discussions may be that no private work should be done by the town dredge, he said.

He further recommended that work at the property should be suspended until ecological surveys are completed and any remediation performed.

The Barnes donated $5,000 to the town in early January, and Mr. Rappaport said he recommended that the contribution not be returned. He also said it did not make sense to fine the Barnes or the dredge advisory committee.

The selectmen voted to accept all of Mr. Rappaport’s recommendations.

Town bylaws do not allow for the town to fine Mr. Rankow, Mr. Rappaport said, “but I believe that referral to the state ethics commission, which has the ability to fine, is a serious step.”

Mr. Rappaport said there is no evidence of other unauthorized work performed by the town dredge. “If there is any, I will pursue it,” he said.

He concluded: “I cannot underscore [enough] the seriousness of this type of activity and the detrimental effect it has on people’s faith in government. If there was another remedy that I could come up with, I would go there.”