Dukes County Is Due for Test of Its Charter

By JAMES KINSELLA

Hopes were high over a decade ago when a newly reorganized government went into effect for Dukes County.

Voters in the county had bought the vision put forward by a charter study commission in 1992 that reorganizing rather than eliminating county government offered an effective way to confront regional issues, such as solid waste disposal and affordable housing.

Years later, the vision retains its appeal.

But the track record of the reorganized county government instead has given rise to disappointment and disillusionment, along with calls for its outright abolition. The government, led by an elected seven-member county commission and an appointed county manager, has been long on bickering and short on substantial regional accomplishment.

At the state election on Nov. 7, voters in the county, which consists of Martha's Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands, will decide whether the time has come to take another look at a central government for Dukes County.

Facing voters will be a decision whether to form another charter commission, which will study county government for two years and come back with a recommendation.

If voters agree to form the commission, they also will decide who will serve on the commission, although the vote will be pro forma, given that 15 county residents have declared themselves candidates for the 15 available seats on the commission.

Whether you want to junk county government or keep it, voting for the charter commission is a smart move, according to Edmund (Ted) Stanley of West Tisbury.

"The charter study will critically review all aspects of the county, listen to public input, analyze the findings, consider alternatives, and ultimately make a recommendation to the public for their vote," said Mr. Stanley, who was a member of the first charter commission and is a candidate for the proposed commission.

The commission is "the mechanism which empowers the voters to retain, reshape, or demolish Dukes County," Mr. Stanley said.

Two key questions hang over the future of local county government. If eliminated, to what extent will county residents notice that it's gone? And if retained, what assurance do residents have that the future leaders of the county will perform any better on regional initiatives than the leaders of this past decade?

The question is not academic. The seven towns in the county - six on the Vineyard plus Gosnold - will pay more than $700,000 this year in assessments to help fund county government.

Where and how the county government spends its money and time also has come under scrutiny. Recently county government spent time and money on a costly intramural battle with the Martha's Vineyard airport commission - which cost at least $608,000 in damages and in legal fees.

The position of county manager has also been a revolving door.

But two top county employees - county manager E. Winn Davis and county treasurer Noreen Mavro Flanders - say that voters need to appreciate the value of local county government.

Eliminating county government, Mr. Davis and Ms. Flanders said, will not eliminate the towns' responsibility to continue to fund the unfunded retirement liability for past and current county employees, which at present totals about $3.5 million.

Assets such as the Vineyard airport, the county courthouse and the jail also would pass out of the hands of local ownership and control, most likely into state hands.

The county registry of deeds generates about $200,000 a year that goes to support other county programs. That cash flow, they say, would be lost to local control.

Ms. Flanders said the county is the designated recipient of part of the money generated through the Cape and Islands license plate, and no longer would receive those funds, which totaled  $127,928 for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Towns in Dukes County, Mr. Davis said, get a bargain through county government, since 60 cents of the county budget dollar comes through grants, contracts and fees generated by the county itself rather than the towns. "We earn more than they give us," Mr. Davis said.

Some prime Vineyard real estate also is under the ownership of the county, including Norton Point, sections of Eastville Beach in Oak Bluffs and Herring Creek Beach in Vineyard Haven.

Then there are lesser known county assets, such as the Vineyard communications center at the airport, and property on New York avenue in Oak Bluffs, part of which the county makes available to the Community Solar Greenhouse (COMSOG) for $50 a year.

Eliminating the county, Mr. Davis and Ms. Flanders said, also could jeopardize a number of services, including a central place for processing Vineyard parking tickets, services from the county engineer and the veterans agent, a health care program for uninsured and underinsured county residents, and programs provided through the sheriff's office, such as Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) and Project Lifesaver, which can help locate disoriented people.

Mr. Davis and Ms. Flanders also point to less tangible benefits offered by the county, such as its availability as a third-party broker to help towns mount cooperative programs. The county performed just such a task in helping get the skateboard park in Oak Bluffs get off the ground, Mr. Davis said.

But county critics such as Tristan Israel, a member of the county advisory board on expenditures and a candidate for the county commission in November's election, note that other entities can step forward to perform functions and services now performed by the county.

Mr. Israel proposed the charter study earlier this year, an idea subsequently adopted and sent to the ballot by the county commission.

"We need to allow the community to be part of the solution," Mr. Israel said. "Right now, there is a lot of mistrust due to events that unfolded in the past 10 years. It's a way for the people to take a measured look at county government."

Another county critic, Woodrow (Woody) Williams of Vineyard Haven, also backs the charter commission. He's running for a seat on both that commission and the county commission.

"Clearly, it cannot stay the same," Mr. Williams said of the existing county government. "I think these people never read the initial charter study. They're acting like they have no clue."

Among the Massachusetts counties that eliminated county government was Berkshire County. John Barrett, now the mayor of the city of North Adams, served from 1976 to 1980 on that county's commission.

"You don't even know that it's gone," Mr. Barrett said. "County government was just another layer of government that you didn't need."

Although regionalization is an attractive concept, Mr. Barrett said, "Parochialism will always exist."

He cites the example of a north-south highway through the county, a plan backed by the cities of North Adams and Pittsfield that ran into opposition from smaller towns in the southern section of the county.

Following the demise of county government, the state and other entities stepped forward to run former county operations. For example, the University of Massachusetts began operating the county's cooperative extension service.

Essex, Hampden and Worcester counties also voted to eliminate their governments, while voters in Franklin and Hampshire counties modified their traditional governments into regional councils of government. The councils are authorized to provide regional services to member towns, who are assessed for the cost of the services.

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization that has tracked shifts in Massachusetts county government, notes that counties continue to exist as geographic and political units even when the governments themselves are modified or abolished. Voters in those counties still elect sheriffs, district attorneys, and registers of deeds and probate.

Mr. Stanley said he understands that Dukes County residents may not be happy with how their county government actually has performed.

Following the conclusion of the original charter commission's work in 1992, Mr. Stanley said, "I don't feel our expectations for better county government have been fully realized, a characterization which may be overly generous."

But engaging in extensive criticism of county government, he said, now holds little value. Instead, he said voters should bring in a charter commission, and also carefully choose who will fill the four available county commission seats at the Nov. 7 election. Three incumbents and seven challengers are seeking the seats.

"Assuming the charter study question passes, I strongly believe the behavior and performance of the four winning candidates over the next two years will have a profound influence on the future of county government here," Mr. Stanley said.