A proposal by the town selectmen to change the board of assessors from elected to appointed positions has brought simmering tensions to a boil in the Island’s smallest town.

A question on both the annual town meeting warrant and election ballot in May will ask voters to approve the change, which the selectmen say will improve the reliability of assessors and bring them under closer supervision.

But assessors this week bristled at the proposal, which they say is personally motivated on the part of the selectmen and town administrator, and based on false premises.

At the same time, and adding heat to the debate, town administrator Adam Wilson is running against longtime assessor Michael Stutz for a seat on the board. Mr. Wilson said he obtained a letter from the state ethics commission clearing him to be a town employee and hold an elected position, although if elected, he will need to file a disclosure.

Proposal by town selectmen has brought simmering tensions to a boil in Aquinnah. — Mark Lovewell

“The current incumbent, I feel, doesn’t really retain enough residency to qualify to be on the board of assessors or any elected position,” Mr. Wilson told the Gazette this week, explaining that the change from elected to appointed positions would go into effect after this election.

Mr. Wilson said if the change does go into effect, then town assessor Angela Cywinski would likely stay on board due to her experience and knowledge, with shared supervision by the selectmen and board of assessors.

But Ms. Cywinski isn’t so optimistic.

“It means they want to unappoint me,” she told the Gazette, describing what she called a pattern of mistreatment by Mr. Wilson and other town officials who disagree with the way she does her job. “It’s really directed toward me,” she said of the proposal.

Tensions boiled over at the end of a long selectmen’s meeting last Tuesday, when Mr. Stutz phoned in from Cartagena, Colombia, and confronted Mr. Wilson about his decision to run for assessor.

The meeting was videotaped by the Island station MVTV. “We have three assessors who work together very well, very professionally and happily,” Mr. Stutz said. “Why is the town administrator running against the last certified assessor, to replace me after decades of service?”

At the meeting selectman Jim Newman told Mr. Stutz he would not address the matter, saying the phone call had been scheduled to discuss filling a seat held by Darren Leport, who has resigned from the board of assessors with a year left in his three-year term. “Do you want to continue that, or we’ll hang up,” Mr. Newman said.

Mr. Stutz later told the Gazette that the town had not informed him or his board about the proposed shift from elected to appointed positions. “I’m really at a loss here, because they are not telling me anything,” he said.

Mr. Newman was away this week and could not be reached for comment.

At the meeting, he said: “We don’t get cooperation from the assessors,” noting as one example a period of time last year when Ms. Cywinski worked from home. In response, he said, the town adopted bylaw amendments last November requiring town officials to hold regular office hours in town hall, and taking the selectmen out of the process for handling complaints from town employees.

Ms. Cywinski dismissed the argument this week, saying she had only worked from home for two months following a major surgery.

She added that the only residency requirement for the board of assessors is that they be registered to vote in Aquinnah. And she pointed to a town bylaw that allows board members to participate in meetings by phone.

“I understand it’s important for employees to be here and to have the town hall open,” she said. “That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is there was a meeting that talked about me and said it was my failure.”

The town hired Ms. Cywinski in 2007, after a 2006 report by the state Department of Revenue found, among other things, that the board of assessors performed “only the absolute minimum in order to generate a tax commitment year after year.” The DOR also recommended shifting from elected to appointed members, citing a number of lapses in member performance at the time.

“Suffice it to say it was a really bad situation that has substantially been corrected,” said Mr. Stutz, who served on the board at the time. He said Ms. Cywinski was hired at the DOR’s recommendation “to help clean up the town.”

One concern in the 2006 report was that the chairman of the board of assessors had lagged in getting certified. An advertisement last week for the vacancy left by Mr. Leport did not list any prerequisites, although selectman Juli Vanderhoop told the Gazette that members need to get certified within a year of joining the board.

Ms. Vanderhoop cited a document by the Edward J. Collins Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts that says elected officials should focus more on policy, and appointed officials more on administration.

“Our offices that are appointed and elected are kind of reversed,” she said, adding that administrative duties in general are guided by statute. “Someone with little training or experience would have significant difficulty entering that position.”

“This is something that it just makes sense to do,” she said of the proposal to shift from elected to appointed assessors.

A similar proposal on the annual town meeting warrant relates to the position of town clerk. Mr. Wilson said town clerk Carolyn Feltz supports the proposal, in part because she plans to retire before the end of her next three-year term. Ms. Feltz is running unopposed for reelection this year.

The town’s elected treasurer and tax collector positions were converted to a single appointed position in 2005. Those votes at the annual town meeting followed a year of fiscal turbulence and the abrupt resignation of treasurer Beverly Widdiss the previous fall.

Complicating matters this year, Mr. Wilson has asked to reduce his hours from 40 to 22 per week, which he said would allow the town to hire employees to cover the front desk in town hall, “and several of the board of assessor responsibilities that the position currently has.” He said the move would save about $11,000 per year. The selectmen, and a new finance committee appointed last fall (Aquinnah’s first in years), have taken the matter under advisement.