James F. Alley Aims for Return to Town Politics
By IAN FEIN
First in a series of profiles leading up to the West Tisbury town election.
In his 73 years James F. Alley has done a bit of just about everything.
He ran a riding school at Misty Meadows horse farm, served as the West Tisbury postmaster for more than 20 years, spent a few decades at Alley's General Store in various capacities, built a laundromat and car wash, sold used cars, and had a real estate business with his father, among other things.
Now the venerable Mr. Alley wants to go back and try one of those things again: He is running for West Tisbury selectman, a position he held more than 40 years ago.
Mr. Alley said last week that he decided to reenter town politics because he believes West Tisbury is suffering from a lack of leadership.
"I love West Tisbury. It's my town. And I don't think it's headed in the right direction," Mr. Alley said last week, leaning back in his chair and enjoying a cup of iced coffee from Humphrey's Bakery. "I think we're like a big ship, sailing along with no one at the wheel. Until we ran onto a sandbar, and then everyone went all clamoring around."
As a selectman between 1962 and 1965, Mr. Alley served alongside Daniel Manter - the grandfather of the man he is now trying to unseat. But he assured this week that his decision to run against current board chairman Jeffrey (Skipper) Manter should not be construed as a personal fight.
"I have no axe to grind with Skipper," said Mr. Alley, who was also a childhood friend of Skipper's father, the late George Manter. "I just want to help the town. I think Skipper does too, but he doesn't have enough seasoning."
Despite an earring that belies his age, Mr. Alley turns 74 next month, while Mr. Manter is still two years shy of 50.
The age difference is somewhat ironic, however, considering that Mr. Alley 45 years ago ran an unsuccessful campaign against incumbent Daniel Manter on a platform of youth in office.
This will in fact be the fourth time that a West Tisbury selectmen's race features an Alley-versus-Manter battle. When Skipper was elected to the board in 2003, he ousted Mr. Alley's younger brother John, who had been a town selectman for 27 years.
James Alley said last week that he thinks some of Mr. Manter's comments from that election now work against him.
"In past elections, Skipper said my brother had too many jobs," Mr. Alley said. "Well, it seems he has just as many jobs now. And he probably can't do as good a job with all of them."
Mr. Alley said he supports a new proposed town bylaw that would limit the number of elected offices a town resident can hold. The proposal will appear on the annual town meeting warrant this year as a citizens' petition.
"I think it's probably a good idea," he said. "We need to get more people in town involved. Everybody's got good ideas."
If elected, Mr. Alley said he would reach out for advice and feedback from other people in town - including his brother John. He noted that even though they do not always see eye-to-eye, he appreciates his brother's knowledge of the town. "We work as a pretty good check and balance," Mr. Alley said. "I would hope that if I am elected, I could draw on some of his expertise."
The elder Alley knows the town of West Tisbury pretty well himself. He was the West Tisbury appointee to the first Martha's Vineyard Commission in 1975, served on the town's first finance committee in 1961 and held posts as town assessor, welfare agent and veteran's agent.
Mr. Alley acknowledged that the town has changed since then - the population increased five-fold between 1970 and 2000, making it the fastest growing town in the commonwealth. He said town officials worked to keep a handle on the growth by creating a full-time police department and building a new school, but added that - looking back now - they may have gone too far. The West Tisbury school has seen steadily declining enrollment in recent years.
"I think the pendulum may have swung too far," Mr. Alley said. "People act as if we went from being a one-horse town to a four or five-horse town. But I think we're still more of a one-and-a-half-horse town."
He is concerned about town spending; the annual budget has increased since 2000 at a rate of more than 10 per cent each year. "We have to get real fiscal responsibility and soon," Mr. Alley said. "The town leaders need to realize that they can't get everything they want. Because some day the bond issues come home to roost, and we're not a wealthy town."
Mr. Alley reappeared on the political scene at a special town meeting in November to criticize town leaders for their support of the $5.5 million town hall renovation project. He admitted that the need for a new town hall poses a tough conundrum for the selectmen, but said that other options - such as the latest proposal to sell the building to the Martha's Vineyard Preservation Trust - make more sense.
"West Tisbury is famous for not keeping up its town properties, until there's a crisis," he said. "The people who work for the town deserve a decent facility. But whether that building there is the facility, I'm not sure. I'm worried that if we open up the walls we will probably be in for a bushel full of problems."
The current atmosphere in town hall can also use some upkeep, Mr. Alley said.
"If elected, I would work toward a kinder, gentler town hall, so people won't get shuffled around when they go in there," Mr. Alley said. "I think the people who walk in there now don't always get treated too well. That hostile attitude is new."
He said he would spend up to an hour a day in town hall every day to solicit public comments and research any of the legal issues that might be on the table. He said he is unhappy with the town's increasing legal expenses.
"We live in a litigious society," Mr. Alley said. "So we need to make sure that we always know where we are before we jump off the diving board."
A former town assessor, Mr. Alley said he has read almost the entire transcript from the Graham property tax hearing last summer. He chose not to speculate about possible outcomes, but said he believes the town made a mistake in not settling the case. The total price tag for West Tisbury taxpayers stands now at roughly $225,000.
"I think if you're a good negotiator, you can usually work it out and avoid litigation. Now it's been a strain on both the taxpayer and the town," Mr. Alley said. "If you look at how much each side has spent on legal fees, you'd think they should have been able to reach a middle ground."
The selectmen should have exhibited more oversight and been more involved in the case, Mr. Alley said.
"It's the assessors' ball of wax, but these kinds of problems concern the whole town - and thereby the selectmen," Mr. Alley said. "They didn't get involved, and by the time people started paying attention, the horse was not only out of the barn - it was already halfway to town."
With an affable and colloquial demeanor, Mr. Alley has earned a reputation in some circles for his sharp sense of humor.
In a May 1972 letter to the editor in the Gazette, he urged his neighbors to cooperate with supporters of the Nantucket Sound Islands Trust bill filed by U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. "The price of crow on Martha's Vineyard is going up to at least $2 a pound," Mr. Alley wrote. "A lot of it is going to be eaten by the outspoken opponents of the Kennedy Trust Bill." A short 1973 Gazette article reported that Mr. Alley was passing out orange bumper stickers that read "Don't make baloney out of my pony."
But when talk turns to town politics, Mr. Alley quickly grows serious.
"I was born and raised in West Tisbury. I've been here probably all but eight years of my life," Mr. Alley said. "And I hate to see the town struggle. It's not slipping away - they're throwing it away."