Island voters will not decide whether to make minor modifications to Dukes County government until the fall, but the county commission has already taken the first steps toward change.
In a June 19 meeting, the commission voted unanimously to endorse administrative recommendations from the Dukes County Charter Study Commission. The recommendations are part of a 35-page final report which the 23-member study group approved earlier this spring. Though the report informally concluded an exhaustive 18-month study of county government, the group will continue to meet until after the state elections in November.
The conclusions in the report recommend no sweeping changes.
County government will be retained with a county manager. A seven-member commission will still exist and commissioners will continue to be elected at large, with no more than two from each town sitting on the commission at one time.
At the state election in November, county voters will consider only whether to reduce the terms of commissioners from four years to two. If they vote no, county government will remain unchanged. If voters approve the ballot question, the change will go into effect Jan. 1, 2009.
But voters will not consider the administrative recommendations which the commission has endorsed and which, according to members of the study group, include many of the real changes needed to strengthen county government in the future.
“We were created to assess whether county government should exist or not,” group member and West Tisbury selectman Richard Knabel said this week. “We said yes, and then it was a question of what form it should take.”
Mr. Knabel and group member Tad Crawford met with the Gazette on Tuesday morning to discuss the work of the charter study group.
The study group decided not to abolish county government. “Financially, we would lose by dissolving the county,” Mr. Knabel said. “We felt there was no significant benefit to scrap what we have today,” said Mr. Crawford.
Nor did the group vote to pursue a custom charter, which would have allowed voters to consider a government tailored to Dukes County. This process would have been lengthy and changes would not be seen until 2010 at the earliest. “It would be opening up a process that we did not want to get into. We would need approval from the state and the legislature,” said Mr. Knabel. Ultimately, local political representatives advised the group not to pursue this option.
By law, the group was limited in the changes they could make to the county manager form of government. So they compiled a series of administrative recommendations to take directly to the county commission. “It was at the discretion of the study group to write the administrative recommendations and at the discretion of the commissioners to adopt them,” said Mr. Crawford.
The recommendations include among other things: requiring a study of county government every eight years, pursuing legislation which would impose term limits on the county manager and give the commission the option to hire a part-time manager, obtaining an operational assessment of the county from the state Department of Revenue and delaying appointments made by the commission from January until March. “The administrative recommendations were meant to address the way the county actually functions,” said Mr. Crawford.
The county commission voted to form a subcommittee consisting of commissioners Leonard Jason, Jr., Tristan Israel and John Alley to pursue adopting the recommendations.
“The charter study put a lot of work in on this and they felt these were areas that are important for good government and good practice,” commission chairman Leslie Leland said in a telephone conversation yesterday.
“I think it will be nothing but positive results and will enlighten the public as to what the county commissioners are trying to do.”
In the end, the study group believes real change will only come when new faces appear on the commission.
“The question that we kept coming back to was, is it the car or is it the drivers, to borrow a phrase from [group member] Ted Stanley. It was there at the beginning and, at every crucial turn, it came up again. You’re not going to fix that by manipulating the structure,” Mr. Crawford said.
Both said the time for change is now.
“Yes, we should see new faces,” Mr. Knabel said of the commission. “[The public] needs to get out and vote for other people to run it.”