Jonathan Revere Keeps Close Eye on Town Politics
By IAN FEIN
Fourth in a series of profiles leading up to the West Tisbury election.
West Tisbury resident Jonathan Revere says he is a direct descendent of a brother of Paul Revere. A biographer of the Revolutionary War hero once noted that his brothers "stayed out of politics, trouble and history."
Clearly Jonathan Revere does not take after his forebear.
A well-known critic of West Tisbury politics and a forceful advocate of open government, Mr. Revere acknowledged this week that he has developed a reputation as a muckraker, avoiding neither politics nor trouble.
He has now thrown his hat in the political arena once again, running for the West Tisbury board of assessors in a three-way race in the annual town election next month.
Mr. Revere said he wants to improve town government from the inside by applying some of the laws and lessons he has learned as a citizen advocate.
"Some people said they won't vote for me because they think I do a good job doing what I do now. But you can only go so far as a gadfly," Mr. Revere said in an interview at the Gazette this week. "Ultimately, you have to work from the inside as well as the outside. And I think I would be an effective assessor because I would be on the side of transparency, courtesy, information and abiding with the laws that are there."
This is not the first time Mr. Revere has tried to switch from being a town hall outsider to an insider.
Between 1999 and 2001 he lost four town election races - two bids for selectman, one for assessor and one for library trustee. But he said he would not let his previous failures keep him from running again.
"You have to be unafraid of losing in order to be able to win," Mr. Revere said.
It is a lesson he may have learned from his professional career. When he is not attending government meetings, Mr. Revere works out of his Seven Gates home as an environmental technology consultant who brokers patent rights and licensing.
"I've had more failures than successes," he said of his patent work. "But I'm in a field with a high rate of failure."
Mr. Revere, who will turn 67 two days after the town election, is by most accounts an enigmatic character.
The son of a journalist and one of the first women in the world to own an electron microscope, Mr. Revere was graduated from Harvard University in 1960 as class poet. (Full disclosure: Mr. Revere worked as a summer reporter at the Vineyard Gazette in 1958.)
He grew up in Manhattan and first visited the Vineyard as a teenager in 1952. Three years later his mother purchased a home in Seven Gates, which Mr. Revere visited often and where he lives today with his older sister.
Mr. Revere moved to the Island full time in 1984 and - believe it or not - said he did not care the least about town politics.
"I used to be the most apolitical guy on the face of the earth," he said. "I did a lot of theatre work out here and I was happy."
The Oak Bluffs dispute with former harbor master Ramon Suarez in the early 1990s first sparked Mr. Revere's interest in town government. He felt Mr. Suarez was treated unfairly by the selectmen, and said he quickly learned that one person could have an impact in local politics.
He soon switched his attention to his own town, and in 1994 helped found the West Tisbury taxpayers association. He started attending selectmen meetings in 1997 to monitor their activities for the taxpayers group, but he continued to go even after the association disbanded.
"Boy, did I keep on with it," Mr. Revere said, estimating that he has only missed three West Tisbury selectmen meetings in the last nine years.
He began audio recording the meetings in 1999, and in 2003 Martha's Vineyard Community Television (MVTV) asked him to videotape them. While he is paid for taping meetings in Chilmark, Mr. Revere does his videographer work in West Tisbury pro bono, so that he can reserve his right to speak.
And boy, does he exercise his rights.
In March 2001 West Tisbury selectmen removed him from the affordable housing committee after he alleged that the town violated state procurement laws. And three years ago town assessors tried to have Mr. Revere permanently banned from town hall after an interaction in their office where he forcefully complained about their putting his property information online.
Despite the occasional setbacks, Mr. Revere said, his decade of political activism in town has been rewarding. "Once you get into it deeply enough over the years, you find it becomes enthralling and engrossing," he said. "We've seen small gains, not huge ones. But every bit counts."
To him, the political chaos that descended upon town hall this year - and the assessors' office in particular - has been a long time coming. He referred to it as a necessary wake-up call.
"It's a little bit like Rip Van Winkle," Mr. Revere said. "It's a mess, but it's also very healthy."
He said recent events inspired him to run again for town assessor. He announced his candidacy last July, two months into the Graham tax case against the assessors.
"I think there have been salutary effects from the Graham case because it brought out a number of things that needed change," Mr. Revere said. "Now that we're alert to them, we can deal with them."
Mr. Revere has a long list of changes he would make to the town assessing department. Some of the recommendations include:
* Moving the assessors' office to the old library building on Music street, which would offer more space and privacy.
* Opposing the use of executive sessions for abatement hearings and releasing all past executive session minutes where the legal purpose has expired.
* Providing more outreach and information to taxpayers, and sitting in the assessors' office two hours each week to help the public and see how initial inquiries are handled.
Mr. Revere said it is vital that the assessors do a better job of educating the public about their work, especially now that town voters will be asked to approve their legal expenditures. He said West Tisbury has been ill-served by a government that underestimates the intelligence of its citizens.
"Town government needs to inform voters more, and not try to just fool or goad them," Mr. Revere said. "We are smart in West Tisbury. I don't think our citizens are given enough credit."
He said that government is also ill-served by the small number of people who hold multiple town offices for multiple terms. If elected, Mr. Revere said he would abide by a voluntary limit of two terms, and would not take any other elected or appointed positions in town.
"People grow stale, they grow inward. They grow into thinking that the town owes them something for their service, that town should let them do what they want and that they know what's best for the town," Mr. Revere said. "I would rather see our boards filled from the wonderful pool of available people. We're losing out on so much talent."
Of his two opponents in the assessors' race - incumbent Michael Colaneri and selectman Glenn Hearn - Mr. Revere noted that both serve the Martha's Vineyard Land Bank and also sit on the town affordable housing committee. He suggested that an independent assessor should serve on neither.
Mr. Revere said that he intended to run for the land bank commission in 1999 to oust the then-incumbent. But he said Mr. Hearn approached him before the race, and they agreed that Mr. Hearn was more electable and should oppose the incumbent alone. Mr. Hearn was elected into office by a mere 15 votes.
Mr. Revere said he was disappointed that Mr. Hearn did not make a similar effort in the assessors' race this spring.
"I was surprised that Glenn didn't come to me so we could talk about which of us had a better chance," Mr. Revere said. "I have a real problem with his candidacy. I think the town needs more of a separation between the assessors and selectmen, and I think that Glenn, whether he intends to or not, will help more than harm Michael.
"In most cases, if you have a three-way race it favors the incumbent. I do think Glenn's decision to enter this race made it unnecessarily confusing, when what we need is clarity," he continued.
"But then again, the normal rules of politics might be different this year."