To Dredge or Not to Dredge

2014 ATM audience

The townsfolk assembled in the West Tisbury School gym. Town officials sat onstage.

Neither dogs nor marijuana was on the warrant for West Tisbury’s annual town meeting last night, so most of the meeting was pretty dull. Most of the 42 articles passed either by unanimous voice vote or by a vocal majority so obvious that no hand count was necessary. We moved money around. We authorized the town’s contribution to constructing a new Little League field in Oak Bluffs, furthering an affordable-housing project in Tisbury, upgrading the electrical system of the county courthouse in Edgartown, and supporting Aquinnah’s efforts to acquire, restore, and relocate the Gay Head light, which is in danger of falling off a cliff.

The heading on West Tisbury is sometimes called the Athens of Martha's Vineyard. This may explain why we're not so adept with Latin.

The heading on two pages in the town report honoring residents who died in 2013. West Tisbury is sometimes called the Athens of Martha’s Vineyard. This may explain why we’re not so adept with Latin.

We took the penultimate step toward making the town treasurer an appointed rather than elected position, this with the hearty support of the town’s current (elected) treasurer. The idea is to open the field to qualified candidates who don’t live in town. The final step is approval in tomorrow’s town election.

Article 4, authorizing funds for a new police cruiser, was postponed indefinitely because the cruiser slated for retirement is still working fine and “you know how Skipper drives.” Skipper Manter is both a police officer and a selectman. Everybody laughed.

Article 21 wanted to see if the town would appropriate $75,000 to replace the fence around the town cemetery. One resident said that her forebears, who are buried in the cemetery, would not approve spending that much money to fix the fence. Another, an abutter, noted that cemetery visitors were sometimes accompanied by loose dogs; she wanted a sound fence between the dogs and her chickens. A third asked who the fence was trying to keep in. We laughed at that too. The voice vote was ambiguous, and for good reason: by hand count the vote was 108–102 in favor of the new fence.

Moderator Pat Gregory reads a warrant article.

Moderator Pat Gregory reads a warrant article.

Even the last three articles on the warrant, 41 through 43, passed handily, though they all dealt with rules and regulations and so were scarily long. Article 41, adding “General Requirements for All Solar Energy Systems” to the zoning bylaws, passed unanimously. Article 42, a string of amendments to the zoning bylaws, prompted some discussion but passed by a lopsided voice vote. “150 to 4,” ruled the moderator. Article 43, proposed by the board of health to regulate “the content and application of fertilizer for turf,” also passed unanimously.

Moderator Pat gives instructions to the volunteers who are about to count our raised hands.

Moderator Pat gives instructions to the volunteers who are about to count our raised hands.

As expected, the most contentious article on the warrant was #32. This asked the town to appropriate $30,000 “for design and permitting for dredging to preserve the Mill Pond,” with funding contingent upon the commitment of another $20,000 from private sources. Discussion took up the better part of an hour — the whole meeting was done in about three — and if it wasn’t quite as heated as recent years’ debates about marijuana dispensaries in town or dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach, it came pretty close.

Why, you ask, did we wrangle so long over $30,000 when in the course of the evening we approved a town budget of close to $16 million? Is this yet another instance of the length of debate being inversely proportional to the importance of the issue? Yes, but it also illustrates William Blake’s line about seeing “the world in a grain of sand.” Big-picture politics can be downright baffling unless you pay close attention to how we act and interact at the most local level.

People on all sides of the issue were sporting the same button.

People on all sides of the issue were sporting the same button.

Consider: The Mill Pond is, as several speakers pointed out in various ways, the symbolic heart of the town. Virtually everyone in West Tisbury, and many people from other towns, passes it several times a week. We watch for the swans and the ducks, we note the changing of the seasons, we love to see kids standing with their fishing rods at the water’s edge. Everybody wants to save the Mill Pond.

Several speakers on both sides of the issue waxed rhapsodic and at some length about the beauty of the Mill Pond and its historic significance. In this case, however, the devil was definitely in the details — on which the rhapsodies were rather short. Everyone was on board with the rhapsodies. What we disagreed on was whether there was a problem and, if so, what should be done about it now.

After all, we’d already voted unanimously, and with minimal discussion, to add $15,000 to the $15,030 appropriated at last year’s ATM for a study of the Mill Brook watershed. The Mill Brook flows through the Mill Pond; hence an understanding of what’s going on in its watershed is helpful in figuring out what’s best for the pond. Quite a few townsfolk wondered why we should prepare for dredging before we knew whether dredging was necessary. Others were certain that without dredging the pond was in great danger.

At last one citizen noted that we were all looking at the same data but disagreeing on what they meant. This, he suggested, indicated that we weren’t ready to act yet.

And when the question was finally called, that is how we voted, but the vote was close: 119 to 110, announced the moderator, after the vote counters finished counting and reported their results.

Hard facts, multiple interpretations, appeals to history that didn’t have all that much to do with either the facts or the question of what to do about them, invocations of posterity that didn’t either, hints that if we didn’t act now bad things would surely come to pass, and general agreement that saving the Mill Pond was a good idea — it was all there. Substitute “the commonwealth,” “the United States,” or “the planet” for “the Mill Pond” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what goes on in Boston, Washington, and the rest of the country.

The difference, maybe, is that we were all talking to each other as we filed out of the gym after the 2014 annual town meeting was adjourned, no matter how we voted.

What all the fuss was about

What all the fuss was about

Oh yeah, and these guys

Oh yeah, and these guys

These guys too

These guys too

 

 

 

 

 

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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3 Responses to To Dredge or Not to Dredge

  1. Good post. I’m not involved much local politics, but only because I don’t have time. I have always wondered, however, what sort of stuff goes on at those sorts of meetings.
    “The difference, maybe, is that we were all talking to each other as we filed out of the gym after the 2014 annual town meeting was adjourned, no matter how we voted.”
    Jury duty was like this for me, and that’s part of what helped me feel how important it was. These people were not contrary, argumentative people, they simply had a different opinion and didn’t want to change it until they were absolutely sure. So when we did reach a verdict, we knew it was the right one.

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  2. Nancy Dole says:

    Well, the thing is, there were a fair number of people at the meeting who honestly would like to see the Mill Pond dam removed, so it seemed like a good idea to talk about the importance of the pond to the community. That appears to be settled, at least for the moment. The money to prepare for dredging was not for dredging, it was pretty much about studying the issues and methods involved, and would probably turn out to be handy info to have, if the pond turns out to need a little help in its old age. Which is quite possibly the case. It’s wise to be prepared, because it’s a long process. Dredging should be one of the solutions considered, certainly. Apparently it frightens some people, so maybe they should know more about why it has been recommended by the two companies that recommended it, and maybe some of the things people fear should be addressed. I think the discussion between Kent and Bob was really uninformative. I felt like there was so much arguing and so little real information that it was probably a good idea to spend a little more money to move ahead on all fronts and see if people could find some solutions they could agree on. Sorry it didn’t pass.

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    • From where I sat, the ATM vote looked less like a vote against dredging and more like a vote of no-confidence in the Mill Pond Committee’s recommendation. The fact that a respected and knowledgeable member of the committee strenuously disagreed with the recommendation was certainly a factor, but it wasn’t the only one.

      1. If the MPC’s goal was to encourage further study, then the article was poorly framed, perhaps fatally so. The words “in preparation for dredging” suggested to me and others that dredging was already a foregone conclusion. Had we voted for it, this would have been used as evidence that the town had already taken a step toward dredging, so let’s take another. This is why Kent Healy’s points resonated: he created doubt in our minds that dredging should be a foregone conclusion right now.

      2. It’s no secret that some people strongly support dismantling the dam and turning the Mill Pond back into Mill Brook. Others are strenuously opposed to the idea. This is probably why the dam kept coming up in the discussion, even though it wasn’t mentioned in Article 32. The MPC could have acknowledged the issue and made clear that it’s separate from dredging, or preparation for dredging — if indeed it is. They didn’t. I suspect they lost some support as a result.

      3. The discussion between Kent and Bob Woodruff wasn’t especially productive, but it was informative. It informed many of us that those closest to the issue didn’t agree on what should be done. That’s important information. It’s not a good sign when the committee that brings a warrant article to town meeting is so deeply divided.

      4. Town meeting floor is not the best place to work out serious differences. This is related to (3). One citizen commented that those working on the town hall renovation and the library expansion had raised the benchmark for town boards and committees. I agree. The consensus that emerged on those projects didn’t come out of nowhere. Those people worked their butts off. The library trustees and friends in particular continually solicited feedback during the planning process. The plans evolved as a result. People who had reservations at the beginning came on board, or at least didn’t get in the way. The MPC can profit from these examples.

      5. The MPC majority kept crying “Emergency! Emergency!” without providing convincing evidence that an emergency exists. Kent Healy’s comments strongly suggested that it doesn’t — that we don’t have to act in haste in order to head off calamity. From the local level to the national, “Emergency! Emergency!” is used to head off, curtail, and even stifle discussion. I’m deeply suspicious of anyone who uses it, no matter what their motives, and when they haven’t got the facts to back up their fearmongering — forget it. I’m proud of the ATM for resisting the urge to stampede, but somewhat dismayed that the vote was so close.

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