Ashley Erisman, who has served on the Conservation Commission for nine years, including the past four as chair, was ousted from her seat on the regulatory commission by the Select Board on Wednesday.
The controversial decision could lead to a “political firestorm,” according to one member of the Select Board who supported Erisman’s candidacy. In the hours after the vote, Erisman herself called out the Select Board, saying its members had made a “political decision.”
Erisman has played a significant role in the Conservation Commission's dispute with the Sconset Beach Preservation Fund's controversial geotube project, which put her and her fellow commissioners at odds with the Select Board over the ConCom's decision to have the geotubes removed. She was also helping lead the Conservation Commission’s update of Nantucket’s wetlands regulations, which has prompted pushback by some in the island’s construction and real estate industries.
While it wields regulatory powers, the Conservation Commission is one of numerous municipal boards and committees that is appointed by the Select Board rather than elected. There were five applicants for two seats on the Conservation Commission this year, and the Select Board opted for incumbent Mark Beale and new applicant Tim Braine over Erisman.
Braine was unanimously appointed, but after the first and second rounds of voting, Erisman was tied with Mark Beale, each with two votes. During the third round of voting, a 3-2 majority emerged with Select Board chair Dawn Hill Holdgate, Brooke Mohr, and Tom Dixon supporting Beale, while Matt Fee and Malcolm MacNab voted for Erisman. Mohr switched her vote from applicant Bo Wilson to Beale, breaking the tie and giving Beale the seat.
While Erisman was not present for Wednesday night’s meeting, the Current caught up with her afterward by phone.
"It worries me, I have to say,” Erisman said. “I’m the most qualified, by far, with my education background in water resource management. I’m worried for the town and the Select Board making political decisions versus competent decisions for a sustainable future. They talk about balancing the boards and commissions, but now they have a ConCom with one female and I’m one of the younger people to run for boards and commissions and I think this discourages others."
Erisman cited both her votes to have SBPF’s geotubes removed and the update to the town’s wetlands regulations as factors in the Select Board’s decision not to reappoint her.
"I think the (Sconset) bluff certainly had a big part in this,’ she said. It seems like some individuals fail to acknowledge SBPF didn’t uphold their permit and are scared of individuals who will hold a group like that accountable for their actions.
"The (new proposed wetland) regulations update is another piece,” Erisman continued. “Realtors and property owners are worried they're going to lose property value if they can’t have pools in the flood zone. If they lose 25 feet of developable space, it’s scary for people but it's important to think about a sustainable and long-term future of wetland resources."
Select Board member Matt Fee, who voted to support Erisman, said he was deeply concerned about the impact of the decision, not only on the Conservation Commission itself but its potential to discourage young applicants from volunteering to serve the town on boards and committees in the future.
“It’s really unfortunate the way it went,” Fee said. “It was politically a mistake. It awakens strong feelings from a bunch of people right when we’re honing in on a path forward. I worry we’re about to have a political firestorm on our hands, and it’s going to be hard to govern and hard for people to trust us as a whole. That choice, in my opinion, was a bad choice. It’s inflaming an already difficult situation.”
Fee said the Select Board had been under pressure from those in the construction and real estate industries over the Conservation Commission appointments with the update to the town’s wetlands regulations looming.
“We don’t split Democrat or Republican, we split on whether you want to subsidize growth and build this island out as fast as possible, and those who want to protect the island and protect all of us long-term,” Fee said. “This is an example of short-term thinking.
Nantucket Current reached out to all three Select Board members who voted in that final round for Beale over Erisman. Mohr and Dixon responded to outline how they approached the decision, while Hill Holdgate did not return a message seeking comment.
“It was a tough one,” Mohr said. “In this case, for me, what was the most compelling thing is looking at where we’ve gone. Particularly on the Sconset Bluff issue and feeling as though we’ve had a reset and adding new voices to that conversation is what I’m thinking. That’s what drove my decision. I voted for two new people.
“Having younger voices is important to me, but there’s more to it than that,” Mohr continued. “The multi-dimensionality is hard for people to understand. We are starting fresh, in terms of who’s involved. It’s a different set of people from the Select Board's point of view and the constituency in Sconset. It’s a massive financial decision (on the geotubes) for the entire community and all the taxpayers. How do we buy time? And do we buy time? Sometimes letting go of history is hard and starting fresh is hard, but that’s where we’re that.”
For Dixon, the vote was also a difficult one. He noted the recent decision of Finance Committee member Joe Grause to step down after nine years - “he stated that nine years was a long time to be on a board” - and the need for “fresh thinking” on the Conservation Commission, as factors in voting for Beale and Braine.
“Between that and getting some new fresh thinking and to give someone a second term, that was my thought process going in,” Dixon said. “I stand behind what the process was and the only thing I can do as an elected official is learn from this and it may or may not change my vote. But it’s a learning process. My thought process in that moment wasn’t Beale versus Erisman. I went into it thinking Braine and Beale.”
While Erisman said she wouldn’t rule out throwing her hat into the ring again for the Conservation Commission at some point in the future, for now, the decision had left her disillusioned.
"I’m sad at the decision in that regard, and I wonder what private conversations the Select Board members are having,” Erisman said. “They don’t seem to be taking place in public and that ruins the confidence of the Nantucket community.
"It is what it is. I’m saddened. And it discourages me in having faith in our town government's decisions,” she added. “But I’m thankful for some of the people who reached out to me tonight and three years ago. I’m thankful for the people who can see what’s actually happening. I felt like I was doing a good job in my role. But the majority of the Select Board members didn't feel that way."