Our View: Making Policy Is Messy Business

Opinion

In letters to the editor and social media recent appointments by the Chatham Board of Selectmen have been criticized as favoritism and cronyism. Singled out were the appointments of J.P. Vario to the airport commission, who replaced incumbent Tom Wilson, and David Oppenheim and Andrew Meincke to the waterways advisory committee, replacing Tim Linnell and Peter Taylor.

Wilson was a critic of the airport, and, together with last year's rejection of incumbent Paula Lofgren, also an airport critic, his rejection creates the appearance that the board is systematically removing from the commission all of the members who were named several years ago to create “balance,” i.e. add members who were critical of the facility during the skydiving controversy. The appointment of Vario, a pilot, and incumbent Huntley Harrison, seems to back up this perception. While there is certainly room for dissent on the commission, the appointment appears to indicate that the board is more interested in having an airport commission that supports and promotes the facility rather than a watchdog agency.

Is this a good thing? That's yet to be seen. But agree or disagree, it's how the system works.

The waterways advisory committee appointments offer a similar, though more complicated situation. New selectman Peter Cocolis came in for criticism for backing Oppenheim, the owner of Chatham Yacht Basin and a contributor to his campaign for selectman, as did Selectman Jeffrey Dykens, who works for Cape Cod Healthcare, to which Oppenheim is a major donor. The appointments of both Oppenheim and Meincke, who runs Stage Harbor Marine, were backed by a majority of the board and were not unanimous. The vote for Oppenheim over Taylor, a commercial fisherman and the advisory committee's most recent chairman, was 4-1, and Meincke was named over commercial fishermen and incumbent Linnell by a 3-2 vote. Replacing two commercial fishermen with two marina owners clearly shifts the committee away from being dominated by fishermen. The new makeup of the committee includes three members associated with marinas, two commercial fisherman, one mooring business owner and one retiree. Does this more fairly represent the current complexion of the town's waterfront? Perhaps. Again, it is the direction selectmen chose for this particular group.

Calls of conflict of interest against Cocolis and Dykens, however, are misplaced. While the optics might not be ideal, the group is an advisory committee with no regulatory authority, and while its decisions could influence waterfront policy (the committee just spent two years rewriting the town's waterways regulations) and expenditures, its role is limited to providing input to selectmen, the harbormaster and town meeting.

Appointing volunteer committees is a significant part of the job of the board of selectmen and a major avenue for policy implementation. It is a legitimate way for the board to influence decisions on the committee level. Removal of incumbents and their replacement with members with different points of view is not unusual. In the past, the board made nearly a clean sweep of the conservation commission, appointing a majority of members who were clearly antagonistic toward wetland regulations; it was a decision with which we vehemently disagreed. Four years later, many of those anti-conservation members are gone and the chairman who was passed over for reappointment at the time is back on the commission, appointed by a different board of selectmen. That is how the composition of the board impacts volunteer committees, and it's why every vote at the ballot box counts.