By now most of my friends and neighbors know that I’m on the county charter commission. They frequently ask: “Well, what’s going on?” And I try to explain. Since many of you may be asking the same question, here is one answer. I need to stress that I am speaking for myself and not the full commission, although I am confident that at least some of my views are shared by my colleagues.
The commission came into existence after the November 2006 election. We had three fundamental questions to answer:
• Should we recommend the abolishment of the county?
• If not, what changes should we recommend in the form of county government we now have?
• And finally, what other changes could we recommend in an effort to build a new trust and confidence in the county?
During its first year we engaged in a series of thorough studies of the county government’s operation, and both the process and ramifications of abolishing it.
Then last August we began to make a series of decisions designed to lead, step by step, toward a set of final recommendations for what needs to be done. These decisions have narrowed our options for the purpose of discussion, but to be clear, they will not be final until sometime in May.
In our first decision, all 20 of the charter study commissioners present, including five current county commissioners, voted unanimously against retaining the current form of county government without change. The same 20 commissioners then voted unanimously against eliminating county government without any replacement. In effect, we all recognized that change in county government is needed, but none of us thought that the outright elimination of county government made any sense.
This decision was not made lightly. It is no accident. Our studies brought us to the same conclusion as that reached by the 1992 charter study commission under the able leadership of Ed Logue. In the judgment of that commission, and virtually all of the members of the current commission, the dissolution of the county was, and still is, a simplistic solution to the operational and financial problems of the county. The downside consequences, particularly in the projected loss of both county property and local control and home rule are substantial and irrevocable.
Our assessment of these consequences is well founded. At the moment, legislation is currently being proposed on Beacon Hill which would transfer the office of the county sheriff to the commonwealth with no compensation for an estimated value of over $3.2 million in county property and equipment. That amount would only be the tip of an iceberg of losses, if the Dukes County Commission ceased to exist.
Since making those initial decisions, we have taken a series of additional narrowing votes, which have been ably reported by both newspapers. While all of these decisions have been important, one of the most significant was taken at the end of January, when we voted 13-3 to leave on the table as the sole remaining option the so-called board chairman form of county government.
If this decision is ultimately confirmed in May, we will be recommending the abandonment of the county manager form of government. For all its promise of professional leadership, which was seen as a step forward in 1992, the employment of a county manager has, thus far, actually translated into far less, and involved the appointment of full-time managers who have been protected under Massachusetts General Law as if appointed for life. The board chairman form of county government is far more flexible, since it allows for a full or part-time executive administrator, whose terms of employment can be governed by a contract, not unlike that of the town administrators in several of our towns.
During the last several weeks we have made another series of decisions involving the size of the county commission and the terms of office of the commissioners. These votes have been far less than unanimous and may not be our last word. Thus far, these decisions have reaffirmed the recommendations of the 1992 charter study commission, which are seven county commissioners, elected at-large for four-year, staggered terms with no more than two commissioners from any one town.
So what have we accomplished? It looks increasingly unlikely that the charter study commission will propose major changes in the actual form, by which I mean the structure, of county government.
This is no accident. In the eyes of many both on and off the commission, the issue has really never been about form, but about the day-to-day performance and track record of county government. Dissatisfaction has focused more on performance than on actual structure of the county.
Performance means the functions performed, how they are staffed, conducted and funded. It also concerns how the county commission relates to the towns and the other regional bodies of the Island, like the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.
This is where we have now turned our attention. With the clock ticking, a series of nonlegislative administrative recommendations is being developed. These are designed to address the functions and functioning of the county, as well as the selection and nomination of potential county commissioners. I believe these recommendations, if thoughtfully crafted, can have far more impact on the actual performance of county government than structural changes.
Speaking as just one charter study commissioner, I encourage you to do two things: First, bear with us, because we aren’t finished. Second, keep our feet to the fire by participating in a series of public meetings we will be holding this spring.
Tad Crawford lives in West Tisbury.