Amid the heap of state and national issues on Tuesday, Island voters will be asked one local question: whether to reduce the terms of the seven-member Dukes County commission. A yes vote on ballot question number four will reduce terms from four years to two. A no vote will leave commission members serving four-year staggered terms.
If the ballot question is approved, the county charter will be changed to reflect the vote. The change will go into effect Jan. 1, 2009. The candidates elected Tuesday to fill three vacant seats on the county commission will serve four-year terms, regardless of the outcome.
Question Four is the result of an exhaustive 18-month study of county government by the Dukes County Charter Study Commission. It is the only opportunity for Vineyard voters to weigh in on recommended changes to their county government.
The charter study group, made up of 15 Island residents elected at large in November 2006 and the seven sitting county commissioners, was charged with studying county government and making recommendations for the future. After a year and a half of work, the group issued a 35-page report in May with recommendations. The report left intact much of county government as it exists today. The group made eight recommendations, including retaining county government with a county manager, retaining a seven-member county commission and continuing to elect commissioners at large with no more than two from each town sitting on the commission at one time. “The charter commission has opted for minimal change in the charter because in the course of its work it became apparent that governance structure was not the underlying cause of the problems that gave rise to the creation of the commission,” the report read.
Dukes County is the only county in the commonwealth to be governed by the county manager form of government.
The report included one recommendation which marked substantial change from the current structure of county government — the change in term lengths. “The change from four-year, staggered terms to two-year, concurrent terms was thought to be a change that would encourage more people to run for the office and make the commission more accountable to the electorate so that every two years, all seven members of the board are up for election,” study group member Richard Knabel said this week. “And if there is a real issue, voters could express their presumed displeasure, or pleasure, by reelecting the entire board.”
Mr. Knabel explained that whether a voter marks yes or no on Question Four, Dukes County government is here to stay. “Voting yes means that the terms would change from the four-year, staggered terms to two-year terms. Voting no leaves things the way they are. A no vote does not mean the county is abolished,” he said.
This spring, the study group also delivered a set of administrative recommendations to the current county commission. These recommendations included among other things requiring a study of county government every eight years, pursuing legislation to 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. In an interview with the Gazette earlier this year, study group members said the administrative recommendations contain many of the real changes needed to strengthen county government. The current county commission has already adopted all but two of the recommendations and the recommended legislation is being filed with the state house.
The complete report of the Dukes County Charter Study Commission and its administrative recommendations is available at dukescounty.org or at any Island library or town hall.