The sound of gavels banging will be heard around the Island when the annual town meeting season begins with our own version of Super Tuesday, as voters in Tisbury, West Tisbury, Edgartown and Oak Bluffs gather to conduct the annual business of their towns. Town reports and paper warrants will be stacked on laps, the soft clack of knitting needles will be heard in the back of the room and moderators will call the meetings to order.
Annual town meetings will follow in Chilmark on April 23 and in Aquinnah on May 8.
The old-fashioned annual town meeting has been called the purest form of democracy, and every year brings a fresh set of political and fiscal issues. The four town warrants on deck this week reveal clear themes around growth, infrastructure and quietly changing mores.
In Tisbury the long-running discussion about building a so-called connector road between the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven and State Roads will come before the town for a decision, and voters will be asked to spend $3 million in taxpayer money for a project ostensibly designed to relieve traffic congestion on the busy State Road corridor in the summer months. But this project feels untidy and incomplete, in part because not all the necessary easements have been obtained to build the roads. Tisbury voters would be wise to postpone the article and call for more transparent discussion and updated planning work before making a financial commitment.
In Oak Bluffs the central theme this year is a return to stability after several years running of financial turmoil — there are no large spending requests. It is encouraging to see a balanced town operating budget and conservative revenue estimates.
In Edgartown and West Tisbury, the annual town warrants are freighted with questions of long-term import, including multimillion-dollar spending requests for new town libraries.
Edgartown voters will be asked to spend $5 million toward a $10 million project to build a new library at the site of the old Edgartown School. The money is contingent on receipt of a $5 million state grant this year. The route to a new library has been circuitous, and it was especially troubling to see a private fund-raising effort for the project fall apart two years ago. Several large questions remain — including the fate of the historic Carnegie library that has served as the town library for so many decades in the heart of downtown. But the committee now leading the effort to build a new library is responsible and conservative and making sound decisions with the best interest of the town at heart. Voters will need to dig deeply in their wallets for this project, but it will be for a public library to serve the town for many years into the future.
In West Tisbury the spending decision on a new town library is an admittedly easier sell. Voters in that town will be asked to spend $1.5 million to contribute to their new $6 million library project. With $3 million already in hand from a state grant and another $1.5 million raised from private donations, West Tisbury, whose excellent little library is a well-documented traffic hub among Island public libraries, deserves high praise for its work as a community on this project. Voters should have no reservations about backing the $1.5 million expenditure.
Myriad other questions confront West Tisbury voters this year, from the contentious issue of whether to uphold a ban on dogs at Lambert’s Cove Beach in the summer months to the unsolved hydrology puzzle over the Mill Pond at the gateway to town.
One issue that is probably weighted with more symbolism than actual effect in West Tisbury is a ballot question that if approved will allow the sale of beer and wine in restaurants. A petition drive begun by the three town restaurants that would benefit from the measure won approval from town voters in a first step last year, followed by the passage of a home rule petition in the state legislature. At the annual town election next Thursday the time for a final decision will be at hand when voters will face a question in the ballot box to allow a beer and wine bylaw.
Will it irrevocably change the character of rural agricultural West Tisbury to permit the sale of beer and wine in a small handful of restaurants? Very unlikely, and in an op-ed on the Commentary Page in today’s edition the owners of State Road Restaurant make a persuasive case for their cause. Beer and wine sales in West Tisbury will be a benefit to the restaurant owners, and good small businesses such as restaurants that buy directly from local farmers and fishermen — like State Road — are a clear benefit to the town and the Island. Recent history from Vineyard Haven and Aquinnah suggests that a carefully regulated beer and wine bylaw will be a benign change for the town, and West Tisbury voters should take comfort from their experience.
In every Island town, voters will have a chance to express their opinion about the roundabout proposed for the blinker intersection in Oak Bluffs. The roundabout has already been approved, and these nonbinding questions are little more than a test of public opinion. But this is a project that seems to be less about public safety and convenience and more about the kind of Island residents want.
All politics are local, the late Tip O’Neill famously said, and never more so on the Vineyard than at annual town meeting time.
The season stirs memories of a longtime Island editor and reporter Harvey Ewing, who used to stockpile his favorite kinds of hard candy in preparation for covering the annual town meetings. Can’t cover a town meeting without a good supply of candy, the newsman said.
Voters in four Island towns next week are encouraged to tuck some candy in their pockets, and go out to participate in their respective town meetings.