Future Senator Blutarsky (John Belushi) said it best in the movie Animal House: “Seven years of college down the drain. I should have joined the Peace Corps….”
In Nantucket’s case, it's more like 12 months down the drain because I just don’t see the numbers to support the recommendations put forth by the Short-Term Rental Work Group to the Select Board for their consideration last week. As written, they will not pass Town Meeting.
According to Stacie Smith, who was the moderator for the Short Term Rental Work Group since October of 2022, the Work Group "held 18 three- to six-hour meetings, seven subgroup meetings, innumerable hours reading material and contacting other towns, held two ‘high-attendance public input sessions’ and held discussions with the Planning Board and Select Board” that eventually produced a handful of recommended bylaw and zoning changes.
Oddly enough, they may not even get out of the Select Board’s final review process – especially with Select Board Chair Dawn Holdgate recusing herself as she has done in the past when short-term rental items come before the board.
Watching the Work Group in action over the past eight months from a safe distance, I have wrestled with the STRWG’s end game and questioned the efficiency of Stacie Smith as the leader of the pack in previous columns. Consequently, I was anxiously awaiting their final recommendations last Wednesday night.
Unfortunately, I came away shaking my head. While feeling some sympathy towards the individual STRWG members who put in the time and effort, I was more disappointed in moderator Stacie Smith – whose leadership and effectiveness have to be questioned at this point.
First, the STRWG members: There is no doubt that the individual members dove deep into the subject matter. It’s the kind of effort that would impress any committee Chair. Clearly, polar opposite points of view were represented in their discussions and as they say, keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
As we all know, there were issues right from the start. For example, there were delays in setting up the Work Group and allegations of conflict of interest hovered over the Work Group’s head like a hungry seagull at the landfill. Despite that, after almost a year on task, I doubt you could find another nine community members more knowledgeable on the subject of short-term rentals than this Work Group. But hard work does not always equal success and some of the blame for the Work Group’s inability to get to a unanimous consensus of 9 - 0 falls directly on their shoulders.
Lastly, as we all know, you only get one chance to make a first impression. The same thing can be said about a final, lasting one. With the bumpy initial stages of the Work Group well documented, the STRWG worked hard at eliminating that negative first impression that was felt by many across the island. But the recent “resignation” of a handful of Work Group members leaves a final, sour taste behind.
I was at the Select Board meeting last Wednesday and did not feel the pushback by some members of the Select Board rose to the level of a personal attack.
Did they question some of the findings of the Work Group?
Was it over the top?
Consequently, the reaction by several Work Group members to “resign” is disappointing. The Select Board is obligated to review the STRWG’s findings and recommendations prior to the Aug. 16 deadline to adopt the warrant for November’s Special Town Meeting. For Work Group members not to expect some pushback from the Select Board and/or the general public is unrealistic and makes one wonder if this move was strictly symbolic.
Additionally, the timing of the “resignation” is odd. When the topic of additional meetings came up at Wednesday’s meeting, a Work Group member in the audience said, “We are done….”
With the Work Group’s task completed and with additional funding for Moderator Smith not on the table, it was clear that the Work Group’s “official” role moving forward was, at best, up in the air. By resigning after the fact, it reversed a lot of “good” that the Work Group did along the way to erase their controversial first impression.
Be that as it may, the buck has to stop somewhere and, in my opinion, it stops at the desk of moderator Stacie Smith.
Stacie is Managing Director at the Consensus Building Institute and was hired by the town to facilitate Nantucket’s conflict surrounding short-term rentals. Smith has over 20 years of experience as a “mediator and facilitator”; and to her credit, she has dealt with a number of high-profile organizations such as the National Park Service, the EPA, and the Department of Defense.
Smith clearly has the experience to think globally. But this is Nantucket, not the World Health Organization; and unlike the expression, maybe this time around it was best to think and act locally.
Additionally, the mistake that crippled the Work Group’s ultimate mission was the decision not to require a 9 - 0 unanimous consensus but to allow a 7 - 2 majority consensus as the threshold to meet before any formal recommendations could be moved forward.
Early on, it was obvious what the headcount would be. While the players may have been split differently, a 7 - 2 vote was an unchallenging threshold to meet and one easily predicted in advance.
With her experience, Moderator Smith should have seen this coming and isolated those opposing views with the goal of bringing them back on board because making a recommendation at anything less than 9 - 0 is, in effect, flawed by conflict - the very thing Stacie Smith is an expert at resolving.
Instead of working to secure a unanimous recommendation, the Work Group spent its time on the minutiae of the topic while fearing potential litigation. With time running out and the issue of enforcement never seriously addressed, the STRWG gingerly moved forward at 7 - 2 and into the den of the Select Board.
This is where Moderator Smith’s experience as one who “specializes in facilitating highly complex and contentious multi-party disputes around substantively challenging technical issues where identities, values and interests intertwine” should have been the difference in pushing the Work Group to a unanimous 9 - 0 front.
Now, some will argue that a 9 - 0 unanimous vote was unrealistic.
Would it have been difficult?
No one wants to know how sausages and laws are made; but if you read the dissenting arguments, Smith should have been able to moderate a compromise. If successfully negotiated, it would have been viewed as a serious first step toward addressing Short-Term Rentals on Nantucket. Moreover, it would have provided incredible leverage when publicly reviewed (i.e. Select Board) and an optical show of unity that would have been impressive at Town Meeting.
At the end of the day, this debate is not about who worked harder during the process or the titillating drama or even about the entertaining middle-weight bout between Jelleme & Sanford. It’s all about the voting numbers and what, if any, general bylaw changes linked to zoning can pass the Special Town Meeting in November.
The last time around, Article 60 (Short Term Rental Accessory Use) was unceremoniously defeated by a vote of 558 to 378 not to adopt it. Frankly, it never seriously threatened to secure the necessary 2/3’s majority to pass zoning.
Historically, Special Town Meetings have not been well attended; but to keep the math simple, let’s assume 1000 voters will attend. Additionally, let’s assume the rumors of a separate STR warrant article doesn’t come to fruition and the Work Group’s present recommendations as written make it past The Select Board and through FinCom to the Town Meeting floor.
It will need 667 votes in favor for adoption.
Nantucket: We have a Code Red.
The votes aren’t there.
You can bring Boston MedFlight’s new Cessna Citation CJ4 twin engine down with its trauma team to perform heroic measures in an attempt to resuscitate support for the STRWG’s proposed changes to the general bylaws with its linked zoning article(s) but I doubt it will pass.
I think it will be……