Competent Leaders Needed
By RICHARD KNABEL
Having served on the Dukes County Charter Study Commission now for almost a year, and with six short months to go before our statutory deadline for official recommendations, it is hard not to have reached some conclusions about our county government. My experience has been thoroughly eye opening, often maddening and frequently frustrating, but a 23-member commission with no staff poses significant management issues. However, the good will and hard work of the commissioners has carefully documented the current status of county government.
To be clear, I am not speaking for the commission. This is my personal report to the voters about what I have learned and what I think. Not all the commissioners share my views, and my comments are not intended as criticism, only as my contribution to the ongoing debate. I hope many other commissioners will take the opportunity to contribute as well.
First, from the beginning I have wondered whether the ongoing problems with county government are caused mainly by a faulty structure, or by elected officials and those they hire and appoint. This question has been the subject of considerable, but mostly informal, discussion among the charter commissioners. The problems, it now seems clear, are centered on the behavior of the county commissioners, their relationship with the recently departed county manager and the county manager’s lack of a relationship with the towns.
I say this after chairing two subcommittees, one on the role of the county manager and another on the statutory, legal and political aspects of charter change. It shouldn’t be surprising that no government, no matter how carefully constructed, can be guaranteed to function as intended all the time. (Consider our national government.) On this point I think my fellow commissioners and I largely agree. Thus one can argue, persuasively I think, that the structure of county governance is largely secondary to having a competent, cooperative set of elected commissioners with an able county manager.
The current form of county government — the county manager form — adopted in the early 1990s — was not chosen lightly by the previous charter commission, nor should it be abandoned now solely in the name of change, or because its recent track record has been troubled. By statute the current charter commission has a spectrum of options available to it, but timing, the necessity of legislative involvement in some cases, and a lack of political unity here on the Island, effectively argues against an understandable temptation for a major overhaul.
What makes the most sense, to me, after more committee meetings than I care to remember, is to retain the county manager form, reduce the number of county commissioners to either five or three, and to elect them for only two-year terms. Mostly we need to make a clean break with the past by electing a new cast of characters.
Second, as I ran for election to the charter commission, open-minded, but not exactly wide-eyed (and definitely not bushy-tailed), I was reasonably convinced that if there were no Islandwide governmental entity we would have to invent one. And I feel that way more than ever. However, other than its troubled past, another familiar force challenges the creation of a successful Islandwide government. One of our commissioners, in describing the entrenched parochial attitudes of Martha’s Vineyard, has memorably said, “Martha’s Vineyard is actually six Islands connected by land.”
I would argue, however, it is not the job of the charter commission to address either the Islandwide issues or the narrow attitudes that prevent their solution. Repeatedly the question has been posed, what can (or should) the county do?” I submit that isn’t the question. There are obvious needs for more intermunicipal cooperation in the areas of water quality, emergency planning, education and waste disposal, not to mention the rapidly escalating costs of operating six towns as if they were sovereign countries. However, any serious attempt by the charter commission to define specific functions for county government, in other than very general terms, would in the current political climate become an instant distraction as well as being circular.
Here is my definition for the role of county government: the county commissioners and county manager exist to be enablers and facilitators when the six sovereign towns recognize that we all live on the same Island and we have common needs and interests. That by cooperating we can save money, increase efficiency and accomplish much that we cannot accomplish alone. To the extent the county commissioners and county manager bear all that in mind, build trust, demonstrate competence, and recognize political realities, they will be successful and we will want them, and the functions will follow. To the extent they do not they provide more fuel for the smoldering fire of abolishment.
Finally, a surfeit of negative consequences go along with abolishment. The charter commission has been advised repeatedly, by those who have experienced abolishment and by our state representatives, that we should avoid it. To be clear, abolishment only affects the county commissioners, the county manager and the county treasurer. The semi-autonomous sheriff, registry of deeds and courthouse would all continue under the rubric of county government even though they will be operated as commonwealth entities. The destiny of the airport is uncertain.
We would be foolish to ignore the well-informed advice we have solicited. Abolishment is irrevocable, although that makes it an attractive option for some people, and its time may come, but it certainly isn’t now. An automatic charter review, say five years after the recommendations of this charter commission are put in place (if they are), should again consider that option. If by then the current problems of Islandwide government still exist I, for one, will change my mind.
Richard Knabel lives in West Tisbury.
Seven Choices, Many Consequences
By MIMI DAVISSON
There is a lot of cynicism about Dukes County government, cynicism fed by facts, ignorance and hearsay. As a member of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission, I am trying to learn the facts and to get rid of my inaccurate perceptions. The following understandings are mine alone and do not represent the position of the study commission.
So what have I learned?
Dukes County government is made up of five semi-autonomous units — the airport, the office of sheriff, the registry of deeds and courthouse, the treasurer, the county commissioners and county manager.
The county’s annual operating budget is $7.9 million. The office of the sheriff accounts for 47 per cent of the county’s annual operating budget ($3.7 million); the airport accounts for 34 per cent ($2.7 million); all other functions combined account for the remaining 19 per cent ($1.5 million).
The towns pay less than 10 per cent, or $770,000, of the county’s $7.9 million operating budget through their annual assessments. The remaining 90 per cent comes from other sources.
The county has assets valued at $95 million. Eighty-four per cent of these assets ($79.7 million) are airport-related. If county government were to be abolished, all of its assets would be transferred to the commonwealth, or other agencies, without compensation to county towns.
The county has the equivalent of 84 employees. The office of the sheriff has 47 employees, the airport has 23 employees and the remaining 14 employees are distributed across the other functions.
The most politically volatile area of county government — the county commissioners and the county manager — collectively account for 11 per cent of the county operating budget ($875,000) and 8 per cent of its employees (six and a half).
The roles of the airport, the sheriff, the registry of deeds and the treasurer are self-evident.
The county commissioners perform a policy-setting, or legislative role. Some of their most important roles are to appoint airport commissioners and the Island representative to the Steamship Authority, to hire the county manager and to serve as an advocate for the Island to help make useful things happen.
The county manager performs an operating, or executive role. Some of the services provided by the county manager are health care access for Islanders, a veterans agent to assist veterans in all towns, rodent control for the schools and towns, discounted engineering services for the towns, management of beaches and other county property, and serving as a watchdog for spending in county functions.
The only way county government can be changed or abolished is through a charter study commission recommendation that is approved by the voters. A binding decision to change or abolish county government cannot be made by town meetings or by citizen petitions. For substantive changes or abolishment, the legislature and the governor of the commonwealth must approve the recommendations before they are approved by county voters.
The charter study commission has seven possible choices that it could recommend. The options range from leaving county government as is with no changes at all, to abolishing county government with no replacement.
If county government were abolished, the airport, the office of the sheriff and the registry of deeds and courthouse would continue under new management. They would be under the control of either the commonwealth or another agency. The treasurer, the county commissioners and the county manager would no longer exist and their current functions would return to the towns, or cease entirely.
If the charter study commission recommended abolishing or substantially changing county government, the earliest that the changes could become effective after being approved by voters would be January 2013. This is due to a lengthy approval cycle which involves getting approval from the state legislature, the governor and then county voters.
Some changes to county governance only require approval by county voters and do not require state approval. If the charter study commission were to recommend these types of changes, the soonest they could be adopted after being approved by voters would be January 2011.
If the voters turn down the recommendations of the study commission, county government will continue as it is with no changes.
In November the study commission will begin to narrow its choices in preparation for recommendations to the voters. The facts will influence the recommendations, of course. But subjective considerations will also be important. What should county government do? What unique governance needs do we have because we are an Island? Is it possible to design a government that can withstand incompetence by hired, appointed, or elected incumbents? How can government be kept accountable to voters and to towns? How can we encourage innovation and constructive entrepreneurial approaches? How can county government be made relevant and challenging enough to attract exceptional candidates? The list of considerations is long.
Each of the 23 members of the charter study commission is developing a view. Please let the study commission members know what you think by sharing your ideas and questions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or surface mail (P.O. Box 2925, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557).
Mimi Davisson lives in Oak Bluffs.