The winds of change were in the air for Dukes County this past week as Island voters elected two new members to the Dukes County Commission and approved the creation of a new county charter commission by an almost four-to-one margin.
Tristan Israel, a longtime member of the county advisory board and Tisbury selectman; and Carlene Gatting, a member of the Martha's Vineyard commission, beat out a crowded field of challengers to win seats on the board.
Incumbents Paul Strauss and Leslie Leland kept their seats, while longtime commissioner Robert Sawyer lost his seat by just over 100 votes.
Both Mr. Israel and Ms. Gatting have advocated for change in county government, and at times have been openly critical of the current county leadership.
While the makeup of the commission was radically altered by Tuesday's election, the real change may come at the hands of the new charter commission, which will study county government over the next two years and recommend changes for its improvement.
One possible change may be to outright eliminate county government - a step that half the 14 counties in Massachusetts have already taken.
The Dukes County Commissioners agreed to put the charter commission to a vote following several county-related controversies in recent years, most notably a legal dispute between the county commissioners and the Martha's Vineyard Airport Commission that cost voters over $600,000 in damages and legal fees.
The new commission will be made up of the seven county commission members, the chairman of the county advisory board, and the 15 at-large members that were elected earlier this week.
Dukes County voters went through a similar charter process in the early 1990s, when a previous commission recommended that county government be restructured instead of eliminated. At the time, there was discussion about the county taking a leading role in pressing regional issues such as solid waste, health care and affordable housing.
That optimism, however, slowly faded over the next decade, and many critics argued the county was an unnecessary and costly layer of bureaucracy.
Despite these arguments, a majority of the members of the newly created county charter commission have advocated for looking for ways to improve the county instead of focusing on eliminating it.
Mimi Davisson, the top vote getter in Tuesday's charter commission race, said the commission shouldn't consider abolishing county government until they determine the consequences.
"We need to make it very clear, both to ourselves and to the public, what it means to get rid of county government. It's easy to say, ‘just get rid of the county,' but we should go to extra lengths to determine the effect on the Island and its people," Ms. Davisson said.
As the leading vote getter, Ms. Davisson is charged with convening the charter commission's first meeting, during which a chairman, vice chairman, secretary and treasurer will be elected. Massachusetts General Laws stipulate that meeting needs to take place no longer than 15 days after the election results are certified by the governor and governor's council.
The commission's members will serve single, two-year terms, and report their findings to the citizens of the county before the 18th calendar month following the date of its election in the form of a final report that will be voted on by the public, according to state laws.
That report must then be placed on file with the county clerk, and be distributed to all elected county and municipal employees and the state secretary. The commission must publish the full text of the proposed charter in two newspapers of known circulation at least ninety days before the election.
Mr. Israel, the top vote getter in Tuesday's county commissioner race, said one of the reasons he ran was the opportunity to serve on both the county commission and the charter commission.
"There's no question it's an exciting time for the county, and for the Island. We have a chance to make some real changes, and really think about ways a regional government can better serve the people," Mr. Israel said.
Mr. Israel said he would like to see the charter commission look at the mechanics of county government, like the number of county commissioners and the rules governing who is eligible to serve on the airport commission.
"But really I think it's important we have a dialogue between the county and the community - with an emphasis on community - before we decide anything," Mr. Israel said.
Mr. Leland, who has served as county commissioner since 1998, agreed the charter commission should go to great lengths to gather public input before recommending changes to the charter.
"The voters are the ones who put us in office, and we have to listen to them, and that doesn't always happen. We have to stop playing some of these games that go on," Mr. Leland said.
Mr. Leland said he was excited to have two new county commission members, and is optimistic about the charter study process.
"It's a great opportunity to tweak the charter and make some adjustments. I've always said that you shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water," he said.
Ted Stanley, one of the newly elected charter commission members who also served on the previous charter study group, said he understands the recent criticism of the county, but feels there is a potential for effective county government that was never fully realized after the previous commission finished its work in 1992.
"We had a lot of good people with good ideas. But it's clear some of those ideas were never realized. It was a wasted opportunity," he said.
Mr. Stanley said the charter commission should try to address regional issues, but should deal with issues that have led to problems in recent years. He said the commission should consider shortening county commission terms from four years to two and establishing specific regulations that prohibit county commissioners from concurrently serving on the airport commission.
Margaret Logue, a member of the previous charter commission, said she still supported the changes made to the county in 1992, and questioned whether county officials properly saw those changes through.
"If somebody drives a car off the road, there's no sense blaming the vehicle. You blame the driver," Mrs. Logue said.
Mrs. Logue said the best advice she could offer to members of the new charter commission was to listen to one another, and to listen to the public. She recommended the group take time to examine what is working in county government, and what isn't, before considering drastic changes.
"I would hope [the commission] take some time to talk about what is good and what is bad about the county before they talk about scrapping it," she said.