Chris Perry Column: I Believe This Topic Is Worth The Debate

Chris Perry •

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Monday morning quarterbacking on a Wednesday is now open for business.

Around the island, the “winners and loser” associated with Articles 1 & 2 are circling their respective wagons this morning as they organize and map out strategies moving forward.

It was an initially confusing, muddied and amendment-filled 100 minutes that was devoted to the short-term rental (STR) debate last night and it was highlighted by the fact voters clearly had their mind’s made up. While many of you are trying to put a good spin on a highly polarizing topic which was basically sent back to square one, I am concerned about Nantucket for other reasons.

I am not upset that Town Meeting has spoken. However, I am disappointed that the short-term rental debate is not over as both sides will undoubtedly restock and rearm for another round as we wait for the state courts to ultimately decide this for us.

But more importantly, I am having a hard time picking a positive attitude today because the short-term rental debate is one of several highly toxic topics that represents a new phase in Nantucket politics.

It’s been quietly brewing for years.

It’s been festering for months.

But, it’s all starting to come to a head now.

Between the continuous rancor associated with the short-term rentals and this week’s voter registration battle between Camp Williams and Camp Rayport, Nantucket has turned the page and entered into a new world. As a year-round resident of Nantucket, it’s a new world that I am not familiar with.

Looking more and more like a scene from beltway Washington, D.C., the Nantucket community has been engulfed in several nasty and volatile storylines lately that has split neighbors into combatants and friends into heated rivals. Far too many have been caught up in the hysteria of the moment and have joined firmly built encampments of no return.

Whether you consider yourself a full-time resident of the island or not, far too many like the battle - like the fight - and want more.

We have lost focus. Right now, Nantucket is a glass half empty filled with way too much bad attitude. No wonder why so many people have pulled up and left recently - and not necessarily because they could not find suitable housing. If you don’t believe me, ask Bill and Toni Struncis who were local fixtures at Island Variety and various tennis courts around the island. Over time, they steadily grew disenfranchised with the tenor and direction of the island and simply had enough and left.

As I try to put the debates of last night’s Town Meeting behind me, the next island controversy to boil to the top is voting rights. No time to rest. It’s one kerfuffle after another out here and it’s not healthy.

Last week, as many of you know, local resident Linda Williams challenged Hillary Rayport’s voting eligibility with a formal complaint to the Nantucket’s Board of Registrars. The Sunday afternoon hearing, which was triggered by William’s complaint, lasted several hours. Eventually, the three registrars: Nancy Holmes, Carol Gould and Judith Lipka-Wodyaski voted in favor of Rayport, securing her voting eligibility on Nantucket… for now.

Does the registrars’ decision end the debate?

Certainly not, as the community is again split on a highly emotional topic that has been fueled by years of political infighting and personal attacks. And since this is only week two of this particular brouhaha, the warring parties are just getting started.

Is it personal?

It certainly feels that way. And while Rayport was declared the “winner,” Nantucket is losing because lost in the emotional frenzy that has been quickly stirred up by this action is the vagueness of the existing Massachusetts voting laws and how it impacts small communities like Nantucket.

For me, I am not giving the specific parties of Williams vs. Rayport much space because I am worried their simmering rivalry will undoubtedly focus on the trees and not the forest. In this case, “the trees” appear to be more of a personal and philosophical form of trench warfare which goes back several years and that has engulfed the energy of their respective supporters.

Instead, the debate should be about “the forest” and an honest discussion and a public announcement of what actually makes someone an eligible Nantucket voter ready to exercise his or her right to vote at Town Meeting.

Frankly, until now, I never gave it much thought as I just assumed everyone who went to Town Meeting was eligible. That’s not to say they haven’t been to date, but with what’s at stake, everyone on Nantucket should know.

Honestly, I am disappointed in myself as I took the privilege for granted. Coming off last night’s Town Meeting and as I started to focus more on the true impact of voter eligibility on Nantucket and less on the petty personal bout between Williams and Rayport, I realized that this has the potential to be a hornet’s nest for Nantucket.

Ironically, if the petition by Williams to challenge Rayport’s eligibility came from her camp, that person should be fired because regardless of the registrars’ decision, it created a martyr out of Rayport. Win or lose, as the conclave met on Sunday afternoon, Rayport’s stature grew as a vocal opponent of the existing status quo. Instead of the focus being on the voter eligibility issue on Nantucket, Rayport became the focus while gaining more momentum. Certainly, Williams and company did not want that to happen, but again, Nantucket loses because the legitimate question of voter eligibility was marginalized even though voter eligibility questions have spread to our doorstep.

If you don’t believe me, ask our neighboring friends in Wellfleet, Provincetown, and Truro on the Cape. Voter registration uncharacteristically spiked recently in some Cape towns anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent in just the last few years.

More specifically, in Truro, a part-time resident, non-profit organization started an under the radar campaign to convince seasonal residents to switch their voter registration to Truro before a Special Town Meeting was scheduled a few weeks ago. On the agenda for that Town Meeting was a debate to spend $25 million on a DPW expansion and a 160-unit housing project on 70 acres of land. Once uncovered when a full time Truro resident challenged 67 recently registered “voters,” Truro Town Manager Darrin Tangeman found merit to the argument and postponed the Town Meeting until all challenges were fully vetted.

Nantucket’s new controversy du jour - brought to light by Williams vs. Rayport - could have been step one in a process of clearly outlining the criteria associated with an eligible Nantucket voter for the public to see. Instead, it appears we are headed down a different path highlighted by Sunday’s sparring session between the two local heavyweights.

On Nantucket, I believe the subject - not the personal attacks - has merit. In fact, former legal counsel to MA Secretary of State and election expert David Sullivan has gone on the record as saying the type of challenges seen on the Cape are legit and the recent action by some of the seasonal residents in Truro violates the law despite the fact Massachusetts voter registration laws are vague at best.

Consequently, the potential impact of ineligible voters participating in a Town Meeting is significant.

Thankfully, for now, the debate over Rayport’s eligibility has been settled. But, in my mind, the true question of what determines an eligible Nantucket voter still exists.

Until Secretary William Galvin opts to review and rule on this matter, I doubt things will change. That’s disappointing for small towns like Nantucket that have a recent history of wealthy, seasonal homeowners looking to protect their investment by getting more active in town politics on both sides of the aisle. Inevitably, these small towns built on the tradition of Town Meetings are vulnerable prey as one can easily take advantage of the vague voting laws that exist today.

Who wins?

As usual, the lawyers will ultimately win as everything seems to end up in the court these days. With the STR debate, interested parties are waiting for Judge Vay and the State’s Land Court to rule and I suspect that it won’t be long before voting laws end up in the courts too.

Until that happens and as Nantucket continues to wrestle with short-term rentals, voter eligibility, and whatever tomorrow brings, I hope we can do better and act more civilly.

As Barack Obama once said, “I believe if we stop talking at one another and start talking with one another, we can get a lot more done...”

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