Four months after the Vineyard Gazette asked the town of Tisbury for public records surrounding the Stop & Shop expansion proposal that has since been withdrawn, the town has complied with the request.
On August 8, the Gazette received the last batch of information it had requested on April 2: minutes of a regular selectmen’s meeting that was held on Jan. 28, as well as minutes of executive sessions held on Jan. 7, Jan. 28, March 18 and March 20. A week earlier, the Gazette received minutes of several other selectmen’s meetings, both regular and executive sessions.
The minutes, combined with emails and other correspondence, provide a more complete picture of discussions the selectmen were having about the Stop & Shop proposal over an eight-month period, much of it out of the public eye. In a story published in May, the Gazette used records received from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission to trace the project’s journey before that agency. After a series of public hearings over many months, the plan was withdrawn by Stop & Shop on May 8 just as the commission completed its lengthy review.
As early as August 2013, records newly obtained by the Gazette show Tisbury selectmen and the town administrator were talking among themselves about what kind of mitigation funding to seek from Stop & Shop. The fact that these discussions were taking place was rarely mentioned in public meetings, and never very directly.
Eight months later, the selectmen emerged from executive session to announce that they had reached a $1.16 million mitigation agreement with Stop & Shop. A detailed list of concessions Stop & Shop had agreed to was included in a draft agreement that promised the town’s support for the project before the MVC.
When the agreement was announced, the public reaction was one of shock and surprise.
Emails and executive session minutes show private talks had been ongoing for many months among the selectmen, town administrator John (Jay) Grande and Geoghan Coogan, the Island attorney for Stop & Shop and a former Tisbury selectman. Between Jan. 7 and April 1 seven executive sessions were posted for reasons of discussing pending litigation and contract negotiations. Minutes released this month to the Gazette show that the subject of the executive sessions was the Stop & Shop plan.
These behind-the-scenes talks paralleled a highly visible and widely followed public process that was taking place before the MVC, which was reviewing the plan as a development of regional impact. To the extent that the town was involved in that process, it appeared to be through a committee formed by the selectmen and led by Mr. Grande, to redesign the municipal parking lot adjacent to the grocery store. The parking committee and the town planning board held their own public discussions and kept detailed minutes which were promptly posted online.
Records obtained this month in the Gazette’s formal request show among other things:
• On August 23, 2013, Mr. Grande drafted a detailed three-page list of development objectives for the town that he emailed to Mr. Coogan. The memorandum never figured in later public discussions.
• The mitigation agreement started at $600,000 and grew to $1.16 million by the end.
• In an email on March 19, Mr. Grande briefed Mr. Coogan on the details of a pivotal executive session where terms of the agreement were drafted.
• All three selectmen were involved in the closed-door talks, which included discussion of making the town’s support for the plan a part of the mitigation agreement.
“Mr. Grande suggested that the board send a letter to Stop & Shop stating that the selectmen will not support the project unless they have a response to the ‘demand’ for monetary mitigation,” minutes from a March 11 executive session state.
Selectman Tristan Israel missed the final April 1 executive session, after which the mitigation agreement was announced publicly.
One day after the mitigation agreement was disclosed, April 2, the Gazette submitted a comprehensive public records request to the town. One month later, Stop & Shop pulled the plan.
In July, despite repeated follow-up requests from the Gazette, the town responded partially but had not provided minutes of selectmen’s meetings, either in open or executive session. Although the town’s website has a link for board of selectmen minutes, no minutes are posted on the site.
This month minutes and other documents, some dating back nearly a year, were emailed to the Gazette in batches by a lawyer for the town, David Doneski, following repeated efforts by the Gazette to follow up on its formal request.
In an August 6 email to Gazette publisher Jane Seagrave, Mr. Grande apologized for the delay but gave no reason for it. “I have taken steps to make sure we can provide a more timely response going forward in the future,” he wrote.
Questions were raised at a recent selectmen’s meeting about whether the town was lagging in its practices by not making minutes available online. One town resident said he found it difficult to follow the workings of the town without access to minutes of meetings. The selectmen acknowledged the problem and said that there was currently no dedicated staff person to manage internet technology in town hall.