County Commission Puts Charter Study Question on Ballot in November

Gazette Senior Writer

Come November, voters in Dukes County will decide whether to launch a formal process to study and possibly change the structure of their county government.

The Dukes County Commission on Wednesday voted 6-0, with commissioner Leslie Leland absent, to place the question of a county charter study commission on the state election ballot, scheduled for Nov. 7.

The vote comes at a time of growing turmoil inside county government.

"I think that the voters should ultimately decide the direction of county government," declared county commission chairman John Alley, who introduced the motion at Wednesday's joint meeting of the county commission and the county financial advisory board.

"A charter commission will bring a reasoned, thoughtful report on the direction we should be going," Mr. Alley said. Rather than engaging in emotional debate, he said, "Let's step back and look at all the facts, pro and con."

The five other county commissioners welcomed Mr. Alley's proposal, which he put forward under the state law known as Chapter 34A.

"Any [government] body periodically should be reviewed to see if it's meeting its objectives," said county commissioner Robert Sawyer.

Commissioner Leonard Jason Jr. said the charter commission route provides an excellent process. Commissioner Paul Strauss said be believes a timely review of county government is a good idea.

Under Chapter 34A, the charter commission's function and duty would include studying the form of government of the county, comparing it with other forms available under the laws of the commonwealth, and determining whether or not in its judgment the government of the county could be strengthened, made more accountable to the people or whether it could be more economical or efficient under a changed form of government.

The present county government is the result of a charter study commission formed in 1990.

But there has been growing criticism of county government in the past year. Much of the controversy has centered on the Martha's Vineyard Airport, which is owned by the county but managed by the airport commission.

A superior court judge last year awarded triple damages to two airport managers who had sued the county commission in a dispute with the airport commission over control of wage scales. Damages and other costs in the court case could exceed $800,000, and in the wake of this some residents have begun to question decisions made by the commission and the relative benefit of even having a county government.

In the current fiscal year, county taxpayers are providing $750,762 to support county government through assessments on the seven towns in the county. The annual county budget is $4.45 million.

Most Massachusetts county governments already have dissolved, shifting functions such as registries of deeds to state control.

Recently a task force of Vineyard selectmen convened to explore questions about the future of county government. Dukes County includes Martha's Vineyard and the town of Gosnold on the Elizabeth Islands.

Wednesday's unanimous decision by the commission formally puts the question of the future of county government before the voters. At the same November election, voters will select 15 people to serve on the study commission, if the commission be approved.

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel, a member of the selectmen's task force as well as the county advisory board, praised the vote.

"I am glad that they are stepping up to the plate on their own," he said. Mr. Israel said he expects that the task force will continue to meet, perhaps now shifting its focus to generate information for the voters this fall.

Sixteen years ago Dukes County voters approved the creation of a charter study commission. At the time county government was led by three part-time commissioners who oversaw county operations. Reformers said the time had come to create a county charter.

The commission subsequently recommended adopting a charter and a new structure for county government, with a professional manager appointed by an unpaid county commission.

In 1992, voters approved the charter. In 1994, voters elected their first county commission under the new charter. The county's first professional manager took office in 1995.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, advocates of the county charter were excited by the regional initiatives that a vibrant county government could offer the Vineyard.

But the actual performance of county government has at times been disappointing, marred by what some see as a lack of regional leadership, by a revolving door in the county manager's office and a prolonged battle with the airport commission, which is appointed by the county commission.

Relations between the county and airport commissions reached a new low in recent weeks, when the airport commission ignored an airport governance agreement concerning the employment terms of the airport manager. The county commission rescinded two airport commission appointments. Three other airport commissioners have resigned.